The Panama Canal: How it Works and Why We Need an Alternative for Containers

The Panama Canal, an engineering marvel that spans the narrow Isthmus of Panama, holds a significant place in world history, trade, and transportation. This artificial waterway revolutionized maritime commerce by creating a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Historical Background

The idea of constructing a canal across Panama to connect the oceans was conceived long before its realization. During the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors recognized the strategic value of such a water passage. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that serious efforts to build the canal began.

Various nations, including France and the United States, took part in ambitious endeavors to construct a canal in Panama. The French started the construction in the late 19th century but faced significant challenges. The biggest challenge didn’t turn out to be in engineering or construction but in nature. At first, the French tried to create a sea-level canal without locks, but they found that the heavy rains that could suddenly raise water levels by 30 feet made that impossible. Their second challenge was the deadly mosquito-borne diseases prevalent in the region. After several setbacks, the French abandoned the project. 

The United States, undeterred by the failures of the French, took up the monumental task in the early 20th century. They successfully completed the canal, which was inaugurated on August 15, 1914. 

Design and Structure

The Panama Canal comprises a series of locks, channels, and artificial lakes. It stretches approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers) across the isthmus, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

The canal consists of three locks systems: the Miraflores Locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks, and the Gatun Locks. These locks raise and lower ships to match the water level of the respective oceans, enabling them to traverse the varying elevations of the isthmus. The lock chambers are massive concrete structures that use gravity-fed water to facilitate the movement of ships.

To ensure a constant water supply for the locks, the Alajuela Lake, an artificial lake covering an area of 20 square miles (50 square kilometers), was created by damming the Chagres River. This ingenious design allows ships to navigate through the canal without the need for extensive excavation of the landscape.

How It Works

The operation of the Panama Canal is a remarkable process that involves intricate coordination and precision. When a ship approaches the canal, it is guided by tugboats and trained canal pilots with expert knowledge of navigating through the narrow waterway.

As the ship enters the first set of locks, it is maneuvered into a lock chamber. The gates close, creating a sealed chamber, and water from the higher-level lake or ocean is allowed to flow in or out, depending on the direction of the ship’s transit. This controlled flow of water raises or lowers the ship to the level of the next section of the canal.

Once the ship reaches the desired level, the gates of the lock open, and the ship moves into the next lock chamber. This process repeats until the ship reaches the other side of the canal. Tugboats assist in maintaining stability and control during transit.

Importance in Global Trade and Ocean Freight

The Panama Canal plays a vital role in global trade and ocean freight, serving as a critical artery for international commerce. Its strategic location enables ships to avoid the lengthy and perilous journey around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. This shorter route has a profound impact on the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of maritime trade, enabling economies to benefit from faster transportation and lower shipping expenses.

The canal expansion project, completed in 2016, introduced a new set of locks known as the Neo-Panamax locks. These new locks have increased the maximum size of the ships that can transit through the Canal. Looking from a container shipping perspective, the maximum size is 16,000 TEU. To handle ships with more than 13,000 TEU, the Canal Authority had to increase the maximum allowable beam to more than 167 feet (51 meters). With the recent drought in the region, the Canal Authority has again limited the maximum allowable beam.

Why We Need an Alternative Shipping Route

As amazing as the Panama Canal is, there is one problem with it: its capacity. Actually, it’s two problems. The first is the maximum size of the ships. Droughts or not, there is a maximum ship size of between 13,000 and 16,000 TEU. Bigger ships will not fit through the canal and must take a much longer route. The second is the capacity of the locks. The maximum number of ships that can cross the canal in a year is around 14,500. Less than half of them are container ships. More than 5 percent of global trade used to flow through the canal, but global trade volumes keep going up, and currently, only about 3% can go through the Panama Canal. More ships would go through the Canal if they could. Also, the current waiting time to transit the Canal is up to 10 days.

How Two Ports and a Tunnel Will Speed Up Global Trade

We will create an alternative shipping route for containers, so a larger percentage of global trade can take a shorter, faster, and more sustainable route. The new route will run parallel to the Panama Canal in Northern Colombia. Two new automated ports will be created in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and they will be connected by an 80-mile tunnel. Containers will be transferred through that tunnel using high-speed Maglev skids. This solution will enable us to unload a container on the Atlantic side and load it again on the Pacific side within an hour. Because Maglev transportation is highly energy-efficient, we can ship these containers across with zero emissions. Find out more about it here.

About the author:

Martijn Graat

Martijn is Zergratran’s Head of Content. He writes about the latest trends and innovations in logistics and anything related to Zergratran