As work on the expansion project progresses, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) continues to modernize and upgrade the existing waterway, resulting in streamlined operations and increased capacity. Recent modernizations, valued at US$320 million, include an improved lighting system in the Canal’s locks; a new track and turntable system; the acquisition of five new tugboats; an additional tie-up station; and, the replacement and reconstruction of the ACP’s launch fleet. According to the ACP, these latest improvements allow two additional transits per day and enhance the safety, reliability and efficiency of the Canal.

“In total, the returns on our US$320 million investment have been significant,” said Mr. Benítez. “We devote a significant portion of Canal revenue to modernization and improvement projects and, through careful planning; these projects have brought about the desired operational returns – safe, reliable and efficient transits for our customers.”

Lighting the Way to Canal Safety
Every night, the ACP moves large vessels through the Canal locks, maximizing the utility of the waterway. Panamax ships, the largest vessels able to transit the Panama Canal, have only two feet of space on each side to travel through the Canal’s lock chambers. To help Panamax ships transit safely, the ACP repositioned its lighting system (pictured left) along the top of the locks’ chamber walls to shine down toward the water and provide greater visibility.

Turning Up Canal Efficiency
Additional upgrades enhancing the safety and efficiency of the Canal include the ACP’s new track and turntable system and second tie-up station. The track and turntable system allows locomotives to reach and assist vessels traveling through the Canal’s Gatun locks. Prior to the system, vessels stopped mid-transit to exchange locomotives. Now, they travel through the locks with the same set of locomotives, cutting transit times and allowing two additional Panamax ships to navigate the Canal per day.

The second tie-up station, located at Cartagena Hill, serves as a staging area for northbound (Pacific to Atlantic) ships waiting for southbound ships (Atlantic to Pacific) to transit the Canal. The station enables ships that have passed through the Pedro Miguel Locks to pre-position for the next stage of transit. The Cartagena tie-up station alone allows at least one additional vessel to transit the Canal on a daily basis.

“Since integrating the track and turntable system and tie-up station into Canal operations, two additional vessels transit the Canal every day,” said ACP Canal Operations Captain Miguel Rodríguez. “These projects have been very well received. Canal customers are afforded a cost-effective and reliable route. Additionally, Canal workers are able to provide smooth and continuous service.”

Canal Reliability Moves Full Steam Ahead
Five new tugboats, that completed an order of eight tugboats, obtained by the ACP from Cheoy Lee Shipyards, Ltd. further increase the Canal’s efficiency and reliability. The new tugboats replace and augment the existing tugboat fleet to help vessels transit the waterway. The new units come with an award-winning design; an output capacity of 4,800 horse power and a bollard pull of more than 60 metric tons. The ACP shipyard, that recently joined offices with the Canal Maritime Operations Division, will handle fleet maintenance. In 2008, the Canal awarded an additional 13 new tugboats to Cheoy Lee. These tugs have an anticipated delivery date of 2010.

To further improve Canal reliability, the ACP replaced and reconstructed launches used for transiting and dredging operations. Specifically, they contracted Transporte y Equipo, S.A. (TESA) to retrofit 20 launches with new engines, transmissions and propellers. To date, TESA has retrofitted 11 of the 20 launches with Detroit Diesel Serial 60 engines and Twin Disc transmissions. In addition, the ACP contracted ASCON Ltd. to provide six pilot and four operation passenger launches and MetalCraft Marine Inc. to supply four dredging passenger launches. These additional 14 launches are expected to start arriving in fiscal year 2010 and will be equipped with the same engines as the 20 retrofitted launches.

“The ACP is committed to improving its services by modernizing and acquiring new equipment, machinery and controls,” said ACP Executive Vice President of Operations Manuel Benítez. “These upgrades help us meet customer needs and increase the value and competitiveness of the Canal.”