Quick, what was the first transcontinental railroad? If you guessed the Union and Central Pacific’s combined route across the United States then I’m sorry, but technically you’re not correct. The original Panama Railway completed the first route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 1855. I recently had an opportunity to ride the Panama Railway’s modern successor, the Panama Canal Railroad Company.
Construction and Early Years
The land of Panama had long been recognized as having a strategic geographic position. The Spanish had used a rough trail over the continental divide, hauling the riches of South America on the backs of mules. Yet it wasn’t until the invention of the steam locomotive that this position could really be exploited on an industrial scale.
When the United States began to settle California and the west coast, businessmen in the East look for ways to improve the long trip by sea around Cape Horn. Soon their attention turned to Panama (then part of New Granada). The project to build a railroad was headed up by William H. Aspinwall, along with Henry Chauncey and John L. Stephens. The California gold rush, which began in 1848, quickly hastened the need to build a quick connection to the West Coast.
Construction began in May 1850, but progress was slow and difficult. The oppressive jungle climate combined with disease-ridden mosquitoes to create a deadly environment for works. Over time, as swamps were drained and some jungle cleared these conditions would improve, but a popular saying claimed that “a body lies beneath each tie.” For a time the Panama Railway funded its company hospital solely by selling of cadavers to medical schools. More than 12,000 workers died in the construction effort.
After almost going bankrupt a number of times, the completed railroad line finally opened in 1855. With a construction cost of $8 million, it was the most expensive railroad per-mile ever constructed. That being said, at one point the Panama Railway’s stock was the highest price stock ever traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
The Coming of the Canal
The railroad was successful from the start, and proved to be invaluable in the construction of the Panama Canal. The original American investors sold the company to the French as part of their ill-fated attempts to construct a sea-level canal in the 1880s. The US Government acquired the line as part of the concession they purchased from the new government of Panama in 1903.
As part of the plan for the canal the railroad line had to be relocated out of the Charges river valley. Canal excavations provided the fill for the massive earthworks the were required. The old mainline was used for construction and then abandoned. The railroad moved all the steam shovels needed for construction as well as the dirt the digging produced. The new mainline was completed two years before the canal in 1912.
William Bierd, in a particularly fascinating piece of innovation, devised pre-made tracks that could be moved around the excavation sites. Cranes positioned these pieces of real-life flex track exactly where they were needed.
Disrepair and Neglect
The opening of the Panama Canal, combined with the increase of US transcontinental lines, began to take its toll on traffic passing over the Panama Railway. The last improvements were made in the 1950s when executives from the PRR introduced mechanical track maintenance. In1979, he US Government handed the railroad over to the government of Panama as part of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. It quickly became a mecca of patronage and favors.
By the 1990s slow orders were everywhere, and some parts of the line were completely inoperable.Passenger service was given up as unsafe. Even the signalling system broke down from disrepair.
Rebirth and Modernization
In the early 1990s the Panamanian Government looked toward private industry to help modernize its infrastructure. In 1995 Kansas City Southern and Mi-Jack Products (a company which sells the lift equipment used for intermodal containers) each purchased 50% of a 25-year concession and a 25 year option to reconstruct and operate the railroad.
Reconstruction began in early 2000. The entire line was rebuilt from the subgrade up, as well as converted to standard gauge (originally the railroad had been built to five foot gauge due to pre-Civil War southern railroad interests). Continuous welded rail replaced joined rail, curves were super-elevated, and limestone ballast was brought in from Nova Scotia, Canada. Contractors also lowered the floor of the only tunnel on the line, in order to provide clearance for double-stacks.
Initially the shipping giant Maersk was the railroad’s only customer, and the railroad has struggled to expand its capacity while remaining in the black.
A number of factors make the PCRC unique in the world of railroad’s. For starters, there are no junctions or rail connections to the outside world. All equipment is captive, and this allowed everything to be wired for multiple unit operation. Thus, the railroad operates in a push-pull configuration without turning locomotives at either end.
The 40-foot well-cars, acquired from the US when the domestic containers moved toward 53-foot lengths, are hooked with power inputs that allow refrigerated “reefer” containers to be transported without supplemental power. These are operated via the head-end power unit on the ex-Amtrak F40PH locomotives are part of each consist.
Passenger services was added in response to demand by tourist companies and commuters. Refurbished Amtrak coaches and an ex-Southern Pacific dome car make up the consist. A number of business people take the commuter train daily to their jobs in the Colon Free Trade Zone, though passenger traffic has dropped since the construction of a new cross-isthmus highway.
The modern day route of the Panama Canal Railway begins at milepost zero in Colon. Originally named Aspinwall, the city was built by the railroad. Today the ports of Cristobal and Manzillo International are both served with intermodal trains. The passenger station is located in Colon in the remains of an old yard.
From there the line travels south across swampland. Tall grasses lie on each side of the tracks until it makes a sharp turn eastward and then southeasterly onto the Montelino causeway. Here the railroad lies on an earthen embankment, with Gatun Lake and the canal on one side and another large lake on the other.
Eventually the railroad emerges from the heavy jungle and begins to parallel the Panama Canal. It passes through the town of Gamboa and across the curving bridge over the Charges River.
From Gamboa the railroad crosses the continental divide at Summit, passing through a short tunnel and quickly beginning the decent toward the Pacific. On the way the railroad passes the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks.
Finally the railroad ends at the port of Balboa, 47 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The passenger station is located just north of the Pacific Intermodal Terminal. Extensions across the causeway and into Panama City proper have been abandoned, and the Panama City roundhouse has been recently torn down.
|1855||GP10||City of Colon||Scrapped*|
|1856||F40PH||City of Panama||Active|
|1857||F40PH||City of Gamboa||Active|
|1858||F40PH||City of Gatun||Active|
|1859||F40PH||City of Paraiso||Active|
|1860||F40PH||City of Pedro Miguel||Active|
|1861||F40PH||City of Coco Solo||Active|
|1862||F40PH||City of Corozal||Active|
|1863||F40PH||City of Diablo||Active|
|1864||F40PH||City of Balboa||Active|
|1865||F40PH||City of Ancon||Active|
*#1855 is expected to be gutted and the locomotive body donated to the City of Colon for display. Roster current as of 2011.
|Rio Rio Chagres||Active|
- Johnson, Bob. “Our Railroad in Panama.” Trains. September 2002: 43-50.
- Otis, F. N. “Illustrated History of the Panama Railroad.” New York: Harper & Brothers, 1862. Print.
- “Panama Canal Railway Company.” Accessed 9 Feb 2011. Web.