Rehabilitation of the Panama Railroad


The Panama Railroad was one of the earlier railways in Central America. It was built under appalling climatic conditions and proved its worth during the California Gold Rush when it was the quickest route from the eastern USA to California. Death was common from disease and other tropical hazards (snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, etc.) and it was said that a worker died for each tie laid. The line was only some 47 miles long but this would have seen some 140,000 deaths. (The railway claimed only 1,000 fatalities but the truth is likely somewhere closer to 6,000). The line made a lot of money in the early days charging prospectors $25 for a one way passage. It even charged for the privilege of walking along the right of way - although I cannot think why anyone would want to walk in the oppressive heat and intermittent rains I experienced while there this October.

The line ceased to be important with the completion of the transcontinental railroads in the USA but it rose to prominence with the construction of the Panama Canal which was completed in 1914. Some relocation of the original line was necessary with the creation of the huge Gatun Lake.

The last passenger train ran in 1989, following a derailment and the line has fallen into disuse although the occasional train was still operated. The track has become weed infested and overgrown. However, in 1998, the Kansas City Southern Railroad negotiated an agreement with the Government of Panama under which title to the railway was transferred to a new company, the Panama Canal Railway Company, which will rebuild the line and commence moving containers across the Isthmus of Panama in what will become, by far, the shortest land bridge operation in the hemisphere.

The line was built to the unusual 5 foot gauge and this will be reduced to standard gauge (4' 8"). The climate,with its intense heat and heavy rainfall, causes a number of construction problems. Earthwork can only be done in the (relatively) dry season and contractors will be allowed to open up only short sections at a time to allow compaction to be done - otherwise there is the risk of finishing up with a 50 mile long mud hole! The railway will be importing good crushed rock ballast from Nova Scotia because water will pass through well and this allows the sub grade to drain quickly - very important when torrential downpours occur with great frequency. Concrete ties will be used and continuous welded rails, from Sysco in Sydney, Nova Scotia, will be laid throughout. The original line was double track throughout but the new line will be single track with one passing siding in the middle.
The work is expected to start at the beginning of the dry season this December and will take 12-18 months to complete.

Two new container terminals will be built, one at each end. The Pacific terminal will be near the port of Balboa. The Atlantic terminal will be near Colon in the area known as Coco Solo. Access to this area will be along the right of way of a siding that has been out of use for about 30 years, although one can still see the rails in some places. The railway has been at pains to avoid difficult areas such as blocking access to fire stations and particular care will be taken in the section which runs through the Sobrania National Park with its environmentally sensitive rain forest.

The railway will be running 1,800 foot long Sprint trains using General Motors GP40-2 locomotives. The trains will be six pack double stack container cars. Train control will be by track warrant. It is anticipated that the transit time from one terminal to the other will be in the region of 1 hours.

It is possible that passenger trains will be revived but this depends upon reaching agreement on the location of the station at Colon. There could be significant tourist opportunities both from tour ships as well as controlled access to the National Park. For a significant part of its route between Gamboa and Davis the railway runs through untouched rain forest which has no road access.

At present there is very little railway activity. There is some broad gauge equipment, including an RS-2 #901 at Balboa and a GM switcher #661 at Gamboa. The latter had been moved while I was there. There were roundhouses at both Gamboa and Colon. The first has already gone while the latter is just a shell waiting for demolition.

There are still some items of unusual railway interest in Panama. The vessels are controlled through the Canal by a fleet of General Electric rack electric locomotives. These are powered through a conduit system and up to five locomotives may be used on each side for each vessel. They are used to keep the ship in the centre of the lock and to stop its forward motion but the ship actually moves under its own power. It is fascinating to watch enormous vessels being controlled through the locks by this fleet of stainless steel electric centre cab locomotives. The three lock stations, Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun, each have a double set of locks which allows vessels to pass. There are thus four electrified rack and pinion railway lines at each lock. The lines are built to take account of the rise of the vessels through the locks so each is built at about a 45 degree angle between one lock and the next. These locomotives take these gradients in their stride, admittedly with rack and pinion drive.

We stopped at a crossing in the country and I walked a little way along the overgrown track. I had gone about 40 feet in and realized that my guide had not followed. Standing still in the oppressive heat I calculated that rumour had it that about 22 people had died to build this part. I shouted out:

"Hay, serpientes, aca?" (Are there snakes here?)

"Si senor"

"Son peligrosos?" (Are they dangerous?)

"Si senor".

Somewhat gingerly, I crashed back through the heavy grass to make the relative safety of the crossing!

Rebuilding the Panama Railway will present many challenges. However, the problems of disease are now better understood. I just hope they are going to have air conditioned cabs for the trucks, earth moving equipment, tamping machines and locomotives.

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, December 1999.

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