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An Upgrade, And Bigger Ships, For The Panama Canal

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Two giant ships move through the Panama Canal's two parallel channels at the Miraflores locks, heading toward the Pacific Ocean.

The orange and white Bow Summer is a tanker. The deck of the Ever Dynamic is stacked high with burgundy and blue shipping containers. More boats like these are backed up in both the Pacific and the Atlantic waiting to enter the narrow waterway.

Global trade has grown dramatically, but the Panama Canal — one of the most vital transit routes — hasn't changed its basic structure since it opened in 1914.

But that is about to change.

The expansion of the canal is one of the largest construction projects in the world right now, a multibillion-dollar effort that will add a third channel to the waterway. The new locks will be bigger than the existing ones, allowing massive cargo ships from China and other parts of Asia easier access to the East Coast of the United States. Work on the expansion began in 2007, and the new channel is scheduled to open in 2014.

More Ships, And Larger Ones

"Usually when people think of the expansion of the canal they think about the bigger ships," says Arnold Cano, an engineer who's working on the project. "Right now they can't fit through the Panama Canal. And that's a big aspect of the expansion. But really, the main driver for the expansion is capacity, being able to transit more cargo."

By adding a third lane, 50 percent more ships will be able to pass through the waterway each day. More importantly, the larger vessels will be moving significantly larger loads.

"Right now the biggest ship that can go through the canal is a ship that can carry 4,000 to 4,500 20-foot containers," Cano says. "Containers come in different sizes but 20 feet is the size that we standardize for measuring ships."

In the expanded canal, ships that can hold three times that many containers — as many as 13,000 of them — will be able to pass through the locks.

These ships primarily shuttle goods from Asia to the United States. Rather than docking in California and sending their cargo by truck or rail to the East Coast, they'll be able to steam through the canal to Miami, Norfolk, Va., or New York. For now, one unresolved issue is that most ports on the U.S. East Coast still aren't deep enough to accommodate these hulking vessels.

A Massive Project

Crews are working around the clock on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the canal project. Massive yellow earth movers are cutting a trench the size of a valley.

Monster dump trucks, so large the driver's cabin looks ridiculously small, trudge through the ripped up earth. Near the Pacific Ocean, concrete is being poured for what will be a new lock.

Ramon Cascante, an engineer standing on the floor of the project, is in charge of water management. That means keeping water out of the pit and making sure the contractors have the water they need on the site.

Cranes loom overhead while workers rush in what seems to be every direction.

"One of the most challenging things on this project is the durability requirement on the contract," he says. "We made clear on the contract [documents] that the locks need to last at least 100 years."

He says the contractors have had to formulate special concrete for the outer layers of the canal to withstand the constant flushing of water in and out.

The new locks will have double doors so that one set can undergo maintenance while the canal remains operational.

Reshaping Global Shipping

Shipping company officials say the opening of the new channel in 2014 will be a game changer for the global shipping business.

Far more and far larger vessels will head to Panama even if they don't transit the canal. Even now, significant amounts of cargo are shipped to Panama's ports, reconfigured onto smaller boats and then distributed throughout the hemisphere.

Tiehan Zhong with China Shipping Lines in Panama City says this will increase considerably as the canal becomes even more critical to global trade.

"It looks like for all the world, the shipping market format will be changed," he says.

He says boats that currently are going from South Asia, through Egypt's Suez Canal and on to New York may instead head east and transit through Panama.

The canal expansion opens up more opportunities, he says, to move more goods from China to the largest consumer market in the world, the U.S., at a lower cost.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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