The title of the sound recordist Chris Watson’s new CD, borrowed from a Mexican film from the 1920s, translates as “The Ghost Train”. The name makes reference to the fact that the recordings were made while he was working on the BBC show Great Railway Journeys, where he took a ride on one of the very last passenger trains which ran from Mexico’s Pacific coast to the Gulf on the other side, a journey that since 1999 can no longer be made. However, as you listen to it while studying a map of the route, from Los Mochis in the west, through Chihuahua and Mexico City to Veracruz on the east, you begin to trace a number of branch lines which lead off from the main line. You find yourself making connections, hitching your wagon to a number of different trains, in order to chase down some fascinating – and very resonant – ghosts from Mexico’s history.
The record starts with the gathering roar of a train, approaching at speed from distance. In this instant, Watson has captured the excitement of the early days of steam trains, and I already find myself listening with an almost child-like glee. Construction of Mexico’s train network begin fitfully in the 1830s, but gathered pace in the 1870s as the result of foreign speculation – English, French, Belgian companies all seeking to profit from Mexico’s expansion. Its last great act of construction was the spectacular feat of engineering which is the train line through the country’s Copper Canyon: 390 miles long, with 39 bridges and 86 tunnels, allowing the train to climb from sea level to around 2,500 metres. Watson captures the speedy procession across the plateau in a most musical way, the whine of the train swelling almost orchestrally over its metallic percussion. He then lingers awhile in the canyon’s Sierra Tarahumara to record the sound of heat rising from its floor, hummingbirds being tossed around in its thermals. In these glorious moments of hazy near-silence, Watson is diverting himself from this onward linear rush to find something completely timeless, a Mexico recognisable to early natives like the Aztecs and the Tarahumara indians – a people who still practice their traditional ways in these parts of the country, and who are named, appropriately enough in the circumstances of this album, for their long distance running abilities.
As the train progresses further along those tracks, Watson records it passing into one of those many tunnels, and everything becomes noticeably darker and more intense. The decline of the Mexican railway system began, it seems, after the Mexican revolution, the railways being taken into state ownership in the 1930s. The costs of maintaining the railway system became increasingly out of proportion to the revenues they were generating, what with competition from road and sea, and they slowly started to decay. When Watson reached the journey’s midpoint, the city of Chihuahua, he chose not to record the noise of the train itself, but instead to take his microphones inside a huge, echoing train shed, cleaving the record in two with some suitably serrated metallic scrape and grind, the sound of industrial distortion and collapse on a monstrous scale. The tone of the record is far more subdued thereafter: even as it passes through Mexico City, one of the most frantically bustling cities in the world, it feels strangely lifeless, and I feel quite alone as I listen to the steady, muffled rumble of wheels on track.
The endpoint of this journey came after the Mexican economic crisis of 1994, and the sudden devaluation of the peso, when the state abdicated ownership of the railway system, handing the loss-making enterprise back to the private sector. The private sector, as you might expect, instantly closed huge swathes of the network down, leaving a handful of unconnected stubs of freight and tourist lines (that incredible section through the Copper Canyon still exists, thankfully). Watson’s train finally limps towards its destination on the shore, wheezing and rattling and spluttering and clanking, sounding in every way like a train on its very last journey. El Tren Fantasma may be no more, but by reappropriating its tracks Watson has engineered his own route, one which traces a fascinating track into Mexico’s industrial history – and beyond.