Friday, 18 April 2008

The Panama Canal Railway

I travelled on the Panama Canal Railway in March 2008. It's a most interesting operation and the history of the railway is unusual.


The geography of Panama has made the area strategically important for centuries. The Spanish originally developed a mule track through the rainforest between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to allow them to bring treasure back to Spain. Despite the rigours of the passage through the jungle, this route became part of the best method of getting from the East Coast to the West Coast of North America - a ship South to Panama, a fifty mile land crossing and then another ship North.

So it was inevitable that, with the development of railways, a railway should be constructed across the Isthmus of Panama. The appalling conditions and the disease claimed thousands of lives during the construction phase but, in 1855, the single-line, 5 foot gauge Panama Railroad opened and became the first trans-continental railway in the Americas. The Gold Rush in California and the subsequent rapid development on the Pacific side of North America brought initial prosperity to the Panama Railroad. However, the Trans-continental railway was completed in the U.S.A. in 1869 and this siphoned away traffic until the Panama Railroad was virtually bankrupt.

In the 1880s, the French started to build their Canal in Panama, under the control of the charismatic Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps who had triumphed in creating the Suez Canal. The Panama Railroad was acquired by the French, but the canal construction was dogged by an initial poor choice of route and failure to learn from the experience of the original builders of the Panama Railroad the sheer scale of the problems they would face from disease and difficult engineering conditions. Eventually, the French abandoned the project and sold out to the United States of America.

The attraction of a canal to the U.S.A. was a rapid means of transferring their fleets between West and East in a time of crisis. In 1902, work re-started but the initial emphasis was on sanitation. Only when they had obtained relatively safe working conditions did they commence canal building. They also adopted the main elements of a plan originally proposed by Baron Godin de Lepinay in 1879 which had been rejected out of hand by the French canal builders. The design had the canal about 85 feet above sea level with locks lowering ships to the ocean at each end. The Chagres River would be dammed and the water level thus raised to create a large man-made lake (Lake Gatun), avoiding significant excavation. The waters of the Chagres would also power the locks. Major excavation was unavoidable to cut through the 'spine' of hills dividing the North of Panama from the South in the vicinity of Culebra. Much of the original railroad would require re-location further East to avoid the Canal and Lake Gatun - see the map below.

The railroad played a vital role in the construction of the canal but, with the successful opening of the Canal in 1914, much of its importance was lost and the railway became very run down. In 1977 the railway was transferred to the Government of Panama but continued to lose money. Eventually, in 1998, the Government gave a 50-year lease to a new Joint Venture between the Kansas City Southern Railroad and Mi-Jack Products (an inter-modal terminal operator). After the expenditure of eighty million dollars, the Panama Canal Railway opened, to passengers and freight, in November 2001. The Company has an excellent website with more historical information and a description of the modern-day operation.

A Journey on the Railway

In March 2008, I travelled on the 07:15 train from Panama City to Colon, taking a number of pictures of the railway. When the present railway was constructed after the 1998 agreement, the original line along the breakwater South of Balboa and the line into the terminus at Panama City were abandoned (refer to the map above). A new passenger station, called Corozal, was created near Balboa Port. This appears to have originally been a rail-connected transhipment building. It was used by the United States Armed Forces as a Commissary before refurbishment for its current role. The train was already waiting when I arrived, consisting of five remodelled bogie passenger coaches and a restored 1938 Southern Pacific Dome Car. The stock was top-and-tailed by two of the railway's ten 3,250 horse power F40 diesel-electric locomotives which operate the passenger service push-pull (1863 at the rear and 1861 leading).

The F40PH (I later discovered) is a General Motors Electro Motive Division B-B diesel-electric originally introduced in 1976 for use on Amtrak, using the EMD645E3 2-stroke V16 diesel engine. For use on passenger trains, Head End Power (HEP) was produced by an auxiliary generator giving 480 volts a.c. 3-phase at around 500kW, but this required the EMD645E3 to run at 900 r.p.m. even with the locomotive stationary, hence the class nickname 'screamers'. Some later variants had a separate diesel engine for HEP.

On adjacent tracks were some of the railways container wagons, awaiting loading. The Company website says that these were originally built by Gunderson and are 'articulated 5-well double-stack bulkhead rail cars'. Later in the day, I saw some of these cars loaded with two-tiers of containers, but I didn't see one of the 'fast freights' on the move. The Company can tranship containers 'in bond' across Panama.

Tourists boarded the train early but as departure time approached, regular business travellers appeared. Right on time, the bell (which is sounded within station limits) started up, the air horn gave a blast and the train slowly moved out onto the main line, over a remote-controlled switch (turnout) and past an LED running signal showing a green. Once clear of station limits, speed increased. The first few miles are uphill to the summit near Culebra then the line is reasonably easy. The train is allowed one hour to Colon, so it does not hang about. There is one passing remotely-controlled passing loop with signals and a second loop where I couldn't determine the facilities. The train is a good way of seeing the Panama Canal, Lake Gatun and the Dredging Division at Gamboa - there are a few pictures of the railway. In some areas, you can only see the jungle through which the railway passes. At one point, there is a prison adjacent to the line.

As we approached Colon after our non-stop run, speed was reduced as we entered Station Limits and the locomotive bell started to sound. On our left extended the container port adjacent to the Canal, where I spotted the yellow open-top hopper cars used for ballast. A branch diverged to the right to the second container port, Manzanillo International Terminal (locally just called 'MIT') where the railway also has its maintenance shop. The train came to a stand at the curving platform of the Atlantic Passenger Station, Colon.

The new permanent way is in excellent condition. The rails are 136 pound 'flat bottom' from Canada, continuously welded. These are laid on concrete ties (sleepers) supplied from Columbia. The ballast came from Nova Scotia. Remote control and monitoring of switches and crossings is over a digital UHF radio channel. Train despatching uses RailComm's Domain Operations Controller (DOC), a remote, hosted service marketed as 'SaaS' (Software as a Service): see Railcomm's site but the Company is also implementing 'Train Sentinel' from Quantum Engineering.

I found the whole operation impressive and professional.