The Panama Canal Expansion Project

The idea of taking advantage of the narrow isthmus in Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was first mentioned in the 1500’s. A railway was built in 1855 where the canal is situated today. This railway was a great influence on trade and really got people thinking about the advantages of an all-water passage between the two oceans. After many years of jockeying for control of the canal and battling malaria and yellow fever, the canal was finally finished in 1914.

The Panama Canal has always had to adjust to meet the demands of international ocean shipping. Not only has the size and shape of ocean shipping vessels changed, but the amount of traffic that the canal would see was grossly underestimated. It was originally estimated that the canal could support a maximum of 80 million tons per year. However, the reported traffic in the past few years has hit over 300 million tons per year. It has become apparent that it is time for some major changes in the canal system.

The demand on the canal has been steadily rising. Ships are getting too large to use the Panama Canal. Over half of the ships that use the canal now barely fit. Over 30% of cargo ships are already too big to use the canal. As ocean freight and cargo ships get larger, the canal will begin to lose its importance in the world trade market. This is why it has become so important that the canal, once again, adjusts to meet the demands of the market.

The Panama government has approved the project and construction began in 2007. It is expected to be complete and in full operation by 2015. The new expansion consists of six new locks, all operating parallel to the old Panama Canal. The new passage will allow cargo ships up to 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide to pass. It is expected that the new expanded portion will make repairs and upkeep of the older part of the canal much easier.

The current Panama Canal has two lanes that operate independently of each other, allow ships to pass in two directions at once. The new, third lane, will allow larger ships to pass one direction at a time. Two new access channels will be built to route the expanded lanes to the locks. The locks will help to transport ocean shipping vessels up to the level of the Gatun Lake and then back down to sea level again. The new locks will be emptied and filled by gravity, the same as the old locks. However, the gates have a different construction and will be rolling gates instead of miter gates, which will be safer in the larger locks.

Miter gates are essentially doors that swing open to allow water to flow through. Roller gates are constructed of round steel drums, they are much stronger and can cover a much wider passage way. Because the pressure of the water creates the seal at the bottom and sides of the roller gate, it is considered to be much safer and is much less likely to leak. Roller gates can be raised above or below the water (depending on the type) and allow for clear passage without obstruction.

The growth and use of the Panama Canal has increased so much over the past few years that its profitability is feared to become stagnant. The expansion project is expected to help the Panama Canal handle new business and boost its viability in the ocean shipping market. With larger ocean freight vessels being supported and efficiency being increased, the Panama Canal project is expected to save it from becoming obsolete in the future.

About the Author: Nelson Cabrera is the Business Development Manager of Lilly & Associates International, a transportaion and logistics company specializing in ocean freight and ocean shipping services. For more information, please visit


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