Saturday, August 20, 2011

Alternatives To The Panama Canal

Between the time Holy Roman Emperor Charles V first envisioned the Panama Canal in 1523 and the time the US Army completed it in 1913, many alternative schemes to the Canal were envisioned and abandoned. Even today, shippers and Canal competitors look for ways to ship goods around the world while avoiding both the Panama Canal and the entire continent of South America.

The Tehuantepec Railroad. James Eads, an American engineer who built the St. Louis Bridge over the Mississippi River as well as many of America's ironclad ships proposed to build a railroad across Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Ships would be brought ashore in a 450-foot dry dock, which would then be towed by three locomotive engines the 134 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean (see picture above). Eads argued that not only would his plan cost half the money of a canal cutting through Panama, it would be twice as fast and would cut 2000 miles off a passage between the US west and east coasts. The Eads plan was approved by the US Senate at one point, but was ultimately defeated in the House of Representatives.

The Nicaraguan Canal. An alternative as old as Charles V's idea itself is a canal through Nicaragua. The canal would require only twelve miles of new channel be built; most of the route would be along the existing San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua. Ships much larger than those that can currently be accommodated by the Panama Canal could be carried, but the economic and environmental costs would be high. This alternative was given very serious consideration by many in the anxiety before the US handed the Panama Canal over to Panama in 1999.

The Arctic Routes. Many shippers are already using or planning to use Arctic routes opened up by the decrease in sea ice. Several different routes are available, depending on the time of years, often saving weeks between the coasts of North America, or Asian factories and European markets. One advantage of using Arctic routes is cost: shipping companies and nations need do nothing except let the ice pack get smaller and smaller each year. The region could turn into a conflict area, however, as different countries  argue about sovereignty, access to shipping lanes and resources, and steps to ameliorate global warming.

Rail Routes. With the advent of intermodal shipping -- in short, containers -- rail has become a much more effective alternative not only to the Panama Canal, but to all water-borne transportation. Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama itself, and even the United States have been touted as possessing the potential to be cost-effective alternatives to the Panama Canal. Columbia and China have recently begun discussing a rail corridor through Columbia that would bypass Panama.

The Panama Canal, Part II. In order to accommodate larger ships and increase traffic flow, the Panama Canal Authority has embarked on an expansion project, due to be completed in 2014. The project will add two new sets of lock, dig a new 6-kilometer long channel, and widen and deepen existing navigational channels.

For a BBC report on the Columbian rail "dry canal," click here.

For my post on transiting the Panama Canal, click here.

For my post on the effects of climate change on shipping, including arctic shipping, click here.

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