Environmentalist surveying Mexico's Maya Train warns of damage to ancient caves

By Paola Chiomante

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico's Maya Train rail project in the Yucatan Peninsula is raising concerns among environmental experts about potential damage to unique ecosystems including a network of subterranean caves.

One section of the 1,554-km (965-mile) rail system in Mexico's southeast, which connects the resort town of Cancun, opened for service late last year. The government has said the remaining routes of Tren Maya, as the flagship infrastructure project is called in Spanish, will begin running in February. But experts have cast doubt on the timeline.

Environmentalists have long raised worries about the train's construction, which cuts through some of the world's most unique ecosystems, including thousands of subterranean caves carved by water in the region's soft limestone bedrock over millions of years.

Water expert Guillermo D'Christy carefully navigated on Saturday around massive stalagmites and stalactites to survey the concrete and steel pilings that have been installed in the fragile caves as part of the train's construction.

"We are putting at risk a very important bio-cultural heritage for Mexico, and for humanity," said D'Christy.

He said he fears that the vibrations of the construction machines and trains will damage the roofs of the caves.

"This ceiling is going to gradually become thinner and thinner. It is falling. It is collapsing," he said.

The government's environmental impact study for this part of the project said the risk of collapse was taken into account in the engineering of the tracks, and there will be a prevention program.

(Reporting by Paola Chiomante in Playa del Carmen,; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener,; Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Cynthia Osterman)