TENOSIQUE, Mexico - A freight train once ran through this town near the Guatemalan border. It carried cattle feed, cement and steel. Every day, a hundred or more men and women jumped on its rattletrap cars and hitched a free ride northward.

Few locals miss the train, which stopped operating in July. But for the Central American immigrants who pass through southern Mexico on a desperate, 1,200-mile odyssey to the United States, the line's closure is a disaster of epic proportions.

Small groups of men and women now walk for days along the tracks, carried forward by the false hope that the trains might be running at the next station. A few stop only after walking 100 miles or more. Many more from Central America continue to arrive in Tenosique and other border towns believing that the railroad will soon begin chugging again.

"They say the train might start running on Monday," said Pedro Joaquin Rios, 25, from Honduras, as he stood on the rail line one mile outside Tenosique, in eastern Tabasco state.

"If it doesn't, the idea is to get to Coatzacoalcos walking," he added, referring to a city about 200 miles away.

The absence of the train has also led to a local boom in immigrant smuggling. In late October, a boat with 26 illegal immigrants, most of them Salvadoran, sank in the Pacific Ocean off Oaxaca. Fifteen bodies washed up, and two survivors were rescued.

For a generation of Central American migrants, the Chiapas-Mayab Railroad was an essential shortcut on the journey north to the U.S. border.

After crossing illegally into Mexico, countless migrants were robbed by armed men who stalked the rail lines, and many others were maimed or killed falling from the boxcars. Despite the dangers, Central Americans continue to seek out the trains that no longer run.

Jesus Maldonado, a Catholic priest who runs the independent Tabasco Human Rights Committee, recently encountered a dozen people who had turned themselves over to police near Chontalpa, Tabasco, after a 180-mile walk on the rail lines in punishing tropical heat. The migrants were treated and then deported.

"They were completely destroyed physically and emotionally," Maldonado said. "We always hated the train. But now we see how much worse the suffering is without it."

Built almost a century ago, the Chiapas-Mayab Railroad had long been a rusting anachronism. In its final days, the Mayab Railroad line that ran through Tenosique linked the gulf state of Veracruz to the Yucatan peninsula. A second line, running through the state of Chiapas, was closed after flooding from Hurricane Stan in 2005 damaged or destroyed 70 bridges, rail officials said.

The U.S. company that operated both lines, Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., announced in June that it was liquidating its Mexican assets because of the poor state of the equipment and the lines and declining freight traffic. The shutdown has been widely reported in Central America, but many refuse to believe it.

"They say in the news the train here isn't working, but people think that they're trying to fool us," said Juan Jose, 18, from Honduras, who declined to give his last name. "People leave Honduras with that dream" of reaching the United States, he said. "They won't let anyone take that dream away from them."