“I find unacceptable that train operators are allowed to drive while on their cellphones,” América Gómora, a Mexico City subway rider, tweeted on January 7. Metro drivers’ conduct has come under particular scrutiny after two trains collided that day, leaving one dead and dozens injured. 

Although there’s no evidence so far to suggest conductors using their phones played a role in the crash, many local subway riders took to social media to express concerns that distracted train operators might be putting commuters’ lives at risk. But one former and four current Metro workers told Rest of World that because the system is poorly maintained, drivers depend on their phones to communicate with each other and keep the trains running.

For years now, drivers have said that the Metro system’s faulty automatic pilot program has forced conductors to operate many of the trains manually. To do this, they need to be in close contact to avoid collisions, and workers say the trains’ radio-based communications system is not up to the task. So instead, they often have to use their own cellphones and WhatsApp chats to coordinate with the control center. 

The use of cellphones during working hours is not condoned by Mexico City’s mass transit workers’ union (SNTSTC) as per the organization’s general guidelines which the union sometimes enforces through punitive action. “Cellphones, along with earphones, tablets, magazines, and newspapers are considered to be distracting materials so, on paper, we can’t use them,” Ernesto, a train operator who has worked for the Metro system for 17 years, told Rest of World. “But [phones] are essential for us now.” Ernesto asked to use a pseudonym, fearing professional repercussions. Rest of World reached out to the Metro authorities for comment on the proliferation of cell phone use among their operators, but received no response at the time of publication.

Investigations surrounding last week’s deadly collision are ongoing, and there has been no official declaration as to why the trains crashed. Until then, neither the drivers nor the experts Rest of World spoke to could establish the cause of the accident.

“We are often reported by our supervisors for being on our cellphones even though we now depend on them.”

Opened in 1969, Mexico City’s Metro system has fallen into disrepair over the past twenty years, María, who has worked as a train operator since the early 2000s, told Rest of World. Using a pseudonym to protect her job, Maria said she believed this decline was due to a general reduction in funding, something the city government’s records also show. Between 2018 and 2021, the Metro system’s maintenance budget dropped by almost 40%.  

“The Mexico City subway is one of the cheapest in the world: 5 pesos [about 25 cents] per ride,” Gerardo Velarde, director of Política Básica, a public policy analysis center in Mexico City, told Rest of World. “The current budget only covers operative costs. It would require double its current budget to cover maintenance costs.”

José Alberto Lara Pulido, director of the University Transdisciplinary Center for Sustainability at Iberoamericana University, told Rest of World he worries that “highly subsidized tickets result in inefficient infrastructure maintenance. It’s absurd when you see videos in which the control center operates with Post-it notes because of a burnt [communications] cable.”

Following a string of accidents, fires, and mishaps over the past few years, the Metro has come under scrutiny by the media and in public debates. The system’s second most deadly accident on record occurred in May 2021, when an elevated railway collapsed, killing 26 people and leaving hundreds injured. 

But an average of 4.6 million people depend on the Metro daily, so drivers told Rest of World they have to work around the system’s faults. Alfredo Pérez Varela, an engineer who helped build four of the subway’s 12 lines between 1987 and 1990, told Rest of World the Metro’s automatic pilot, if properly maintained, is safer than manual operations. “These types of accidents never happened before because everything worked automatically,” he said. “If they keep happening, it’s because it hasn’t been maintained properly.”

Previously, each train could automatically identify its proximity to another one. “It is designed to stop so trains don’t collide,” said Pérez Varela. Now, human operators, who had initially been hired as a fail-safe to manually halt a train if the automatic pilot failed, need to intervene more often. Trains usually run at 70 kilometers per hour, but when the autopilot signals that it is not working, operators must take immediate action to manually reduce the speed to 35 kilometers per hour to avoid derailment.

Since the trains are increasingly manually driven, real-time communication among operators is essential. “We are all provided with a radio but it doesn’t work properly,” Jaime, an operator who has worked at the Metro for 17 years, told Rest of World on condition of anonymity. “That’s why we started using our cellphones.” 

Four current and former Metro employees confirmed to Rest of World that since the early 2000s, their personal cellphones have become their main form of communication — first through calls and currently through WhatsApp. “It is the way everyone is talking — from fellow operators to inspectors to station managers,” Jaime said. 

Jimena, another current driver who asked for anonymity, told Rest of World that operators she knows have created at least two WhatsApp group chats — one with nearly 160 members — to warn each other about autopilot outages and other malfunctions on her line. Jaime belongs to two other groups from different shifts. If there is ever a WhatsApp outage, Metro workers have parallel Facebook chats to maintain communication.

Mobile coverage in a largely underground system is mostly not an issue, drivers told Rest of World. That’s thanks to a recent upgrade to the Metro’s cellular connectivity with the addition of a fiber optic network, according to Mony de Swaan, a founding member of the Center for Studies and Research in Public Affairs (CEIAP), a consultancy specializing in telecommunications, pharma, and public policy. It allows for reliable WhatsApp-based communication, he told Rest of World.

Despite good connectivity, some drivers can’t afford to stay online all the time, said Jaime. According to Jimena, about 98% of the train operators on her line use WhatsApp on the job, but some will often run out of data, which they must pay for out-of-pocket.

Metro workers’ reliance on their personal devices can also land them in trouble. “We are often reported by our supervisors for being on our cellphones even though we now depend on them,” said Jimena. 

Esmeralda Espinosa, a former train operator who still has family members working in the Metro system and is familiar with its current issues, told Rest of World that while she agrees using a phone could be distracting for a conductor, it’s also a critical tool given the current conditions. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she said.