Traveling Through the Canal
A vessel approaching the canal from the Atlantic Ocean encounters the Gatun Locks (commonly referred to as water elevators) first. The Gatun Locks raise the ship 26 meters above sea level to Gatun Lake. (see Fig. 1) In addition, train tracks run parallel to the locks. The locomotives travel along the vessel in order to help stabilize it as it passes through the locks. Next, the vessels travel through Gatun Lake while being pulled by a tugboat. The vessel then reaches the Pedro Miguel Locks where it is lowered into Miraflores Lake. After traveling the length of Miraflores Lake, the vessel is lowered back into the Pacific Ocean by the Miraflores Locks. The total travel time through the Panama Canals is approximately 24 hours.
Business Through the Canal
According to the U.S. Marine Transportation 1998 report, “Marine transportation is an integral component of the U.S. transportation system and essential to the nation’s economy.” The United States ships over 1 billion long tons of cargo through the Panama Canal each year, making the Panama Canal an indespensible aspect of the nation’s economy. Servicing over 50 countries on all 7 continents, the Panama Canal is vital to the transportation of natural resources and manufactured goods. This can be seen through the following facts:
- 141 trade routes converge at the Panama Canal.
- It serviced an average of 37.8 vessels a day in 2000.
- The busiest of the trade routes, the East Coast of the United States to Asia, is 3,000 miles shorter than the alternative all-water route around the Southern tip of South America.
- Nearly 195 million long tons of cargo were transported in 2000.
- Total revenues for 1999 were nearly $750 million.
Change in Authority
Increasing Shipping Industry
Shipping through the Panama Canal has increased in the last two decades due to the decreased service of rail systems in the United States (see Fig. 2). Before the 1980’s, most cargo from Asia to the Eastern United States did travel through the canal. Improvements in rail shipping procedure at the time provided service six days faster at only a slightly higher cost. Now, however, the rails are unable to keep up with the increase in cargo tonnage. For instance, containers may remain stacked at ports in California weeks before they make it to the rail lines. Many shipping companies from China have chosen to get their cargo to the east coast of the Unites States through the Panama Canal to avoid congested railways in California. The rail service in the United States is no longer the consistently fastest option. Since the early 1990’s, all water shipping routes, as opposed to water and rail routes, have increased 65%.
Plans for Improvements
The Panama Canal provides service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, which is a difficult task for any business. The canal is currently under many renovations. The billion-dollar project, which began in 1996, should be completed in 2002 (Morton 2001). Current improvements include:
- Beyond the narrowest part, the Gillard Cut, which will allow two-way Panamax traffic for the first time; the cut will be widened from 500 ft to 630 ft.
- Upgrade 80 year electromechanical lock machinery with hydraulic systems.
- Add 26 new locomotives. The locomotives are used to maintain transiting vessels in position while in the locks.
- Repair 53,000 ft of locomotive tow track.
- Increase tow boat fleet.
The transiting time for a vessel, about 24 hours, has not changed much in the past two decades, but the sometimes week-long wait to enter the canal has been steadily growing . After the improvements, the transition time and the wait will be reduced.
-  B. Murphy, “Alternatives Considered to Historic Panama Canal.” Los Angeles Times [Sept, 1996].
-  R. Condit. “The Status of the Panama Canal Watershed and Its Biodiversity at the Beginning of the 21st Century”. BioScience. [Online]. Available: http://business.highbeam.com/411908/article-1G1-76940140/status-panama-canal-watershed-and-its-biodiversity .
-  “ACP Studies Project to Deepen Gatun Lake.” Internet: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/pr/press-releases/2001/08/24/pr42.html, Aug. 24, 2001.