The 48 mile-long international waterway known as the Panama Canal allows ships to pass between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean, saving about 8,000 miles from a journey around the southern tip of South America. A project is underway to build new locks as well as wider and deeper channels that is expected to double the canal’s capacity. This will allow megaships to move through the Canal.
Though traffic continues to increase through the canal, many oil supertankers, huge container ships and aircraft carriers can not fit through the canal. There’s even a class of ships known as “Panamax,” those built to the maximum capacity of the Panama canal and its locks. the Panama Canal expansion project will allow ships double the size of current Panamax (“Post-Panamax”) to pass through the canal, dramatically increasing the amount of goods that can pass through the canal.
The expansion project is a little off target and will not be completed until April 2015. What does this expansion mean? The Panama Canal will then accommodate post-Panamax vessels that carry 12,600 containers, compared to today’s ships carrying 4,500 containers.
Shipping containers through the Canal on these larger ships could reduce costs by as much as $75 to $100 per container per voyage, which adds up quickly! When such ships are able to pass through the Panama Canal, business will consequently pick up along both the U.S. Eastern and Gulf coast ports because the ships can take an “all-water” route from Asia to the U.S. East or Gulf coast—bypassing West coast ports and the roads and railways now used to transport goods across the U.S. However, these ships require depths of up to 50 feet of water to navigate. As a result, port authorities along the U.S. Eastern seaboard and Gulf coast are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to dredge the bottoms of their bays and river bottoms to deepen harbors to accommodate the larger ships.
Progressive Railroading has been covering the East Coast ports plus the connecting railroads. As the $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion nears its 2015 completion to allow supersize, Post-Panamax cargo ships to pass through on their way to markets farther north, eastern U.S. ports and a number of railroads are gearing up for an anticipated increase in international intermodal traffic in the coming years. East and Gulf Coast port authorities are developing and deepening their harbors in preparation for the influx of giant ships, and eastern railroads are building or expanding on-dock rail facilities, building intermodal centers or advancing other plans to accommodate an expected increase in freight traffic.
Among railroads anticipating a bump in intermodal traffic after the bigger canal opens is Florida East Coast Railway L.L.C. (FEC), the only rail provider to south Florida’s ports. Based in Jacksonville, Fla., the 351-mile regional is working with PortMiami and Port Everglades to build on-dock rail facilities as part of their expansion programs, which FEC execs view as a big part of the railroad’s strategy to grow intermodal traffic. “By summer 2014, we’ll have the on-dock rail facility fully operational, which means that from PortMiami we can hit 70 percent of the American population in a matter of days,” says PortMiami Director Bill Johnson. “It will allow us to double stack containers directly to Jacksonville in under nine hours, and connect to Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) and CSX directly to the heartland of America.”
FEC is partnering with both Port Miami and Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale) to build on-dock rail facilities to provide faster and more cost-effective service to intermodal customers. In addition, the Port of Miami is engaged in the FEC Rail Reconnection Project. The Project has four phases: (1) reconstruction of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) Port Lead, (2) rehabilitation of the bascule bridge that connects Port Miami and FEC, (3) the construction of an on-port rail facility, and (4) modifications to FEC’s Rail Yard to accommodate the increase in intermodal traffic. The rail reconnection project is actually part of a larger infrastructure investment program taking place at Port Miami. The other two projects are the Miami Access Tunnel and the 50-foot dredge.