Accessibility links

Breaking News

Bigger Ships, So a Bigger Panama Canal

Workers dig an area where a new set of locks of the Panama Canal will be built in Cocoli, near Panama City
Workers dig an area where a new set of locks of the Panama Canal will be built in Cocoli, near Panama City

This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.

The Panama Canal opened almost one hundred years ago. More than one million ships have passed through the waterway since nineteen fourteen.

The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It reduces travel by thirteen thousand kilometers. It avoids the need for ships to sail around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America.

More than forty ships pass through the canal each day -- more than fourteen thousand each year. Now, a major expansion project will permit more ships -- and bigger ships -- to pass through the canal.

Jorge Luis Quijano is the Panama Canal’s executive vice president of engineering. He told VOA's Zulima Palacio that the canal is operating at its limit.

JORGE LUIS QUIJANO: "The present canal has a total capacity of about three hundred and forty million tons a year that it can handle, that's the maximum capacity. With the expansion we expect to double that, over six hundred million tons that we can handle in a year."

Ships pass through a series of locks. These locks raise a ship to the level of Gatun Lake at the canal entrance on the Atlantic side. They lower the ship back to sea level on the Pacific side.

For years, shipbuilders limited the size of many ships so that they could fit through the Panama Canal. But now many shipping companies use bigger ships to transport more goods as a way to reduce costs.

Jorge Luis Quijano says the expansion project will allow many of these larger ships to use the canal.

JORGE LUIS QUIJANO: "This new canal actually is offering a larger vessel that it can handle, with deeper draft with a longer and wider vessel."

Workers are building the new locks alongside the old ones, which will remain in use. The existing locks are three hundred five meters long and thirty-three meters wide.

The new ones will be four hundred twenty-seven meters long and fifty-five meters wide. They will be able to handle ships with drafts of more than fifteen meters. Currently ships can ride only twelve meters deep in the canal.

Engineers could not make the new locks too big. Mr. Quijano says the plans had to balance the size of the locks with the cost for ships to use the canal.

JORGE LUIS QUIJANO: “We had to look at the optimal size of vessel that would make the return on the investment of a high value to us. So we chose what size of vessels that could actually pay for this project.”

The cost is estimated at more than five billion dollars. The new locks are set to open in twenty fourteen, the one hundredth anniversary of the Panama Canal.

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. You can watch a video about the project at I'm Steve Ember.