Hello Construction Industry Podcast community!
For the 18th episode of the Construction Industry Podcast I spoke with Mr. Jorge de la Guardia, the Contracting Officer for the Design Build contract for the construction of the new set of Locks which is the largest contract in the Expansion Program of the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal is, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. It symbolizes a triumph in Engineering, and a tremendous step in setting the stage for the incredible worldwide trade that we see today.
Mr. de la Guardia shared with me the history of the building of the Panama Canal and the extreme challenges that it represented at the time. He also made the case for the current expansion project that is now taking place there in order to increase traffic capacity in this growing global economy.
If you want an awesome inside view of the workings of the Panama Canal, click the orange “play” button above to listen to this episode.
Again, I’d like to thank you for listening to the show. I would love your feedback. Please use the contact us link at the menu on top of the page or use the “Send Voicemail” tab on the right edge of the site.
Take a listen by clicking the orange “play” button above.
- Construction Industry Podcast on the Libsyn blog
- Google Earth Images of the Panama Canal
- Panama Canal on Wikipedia
- Panamax Ship Size
- Presentation on Innovations in Navigation Lock Design by Prof. Philippe Rigo University of Liege, Belgium
- Panama Canal Website
- Panama Canal Expansion Camera Feeds
- Panama City: Miraflores Locks Visitor Center on TripAdvisor.com
Listen to the entire episode by clicking the orange “play” button above. Or you can check out the entire text transcription of the discussion by clicking here:[spoiler]Cesar: Good morning, Jorge. How are you?
Jorge: Fine. Thank you, Cesar.
Cesar: I was just talking to you before we started the recording that I used to be able to speak Spanish and if you don’t use it, you lose it. But I think it’s a good thing for the audience. I think mostly the people who are listening to this show speak English anyway so it’s not …
Jorge: Yes. OK.
Cesar: Anyway, so we’re here today to talk a little bit about the Panama Canal and I think this is the – it’s such a landmark, right? I think it was named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and I think pretty much the whole world knows of it and what it is. But I was wondering if you could give us a brief history of how the canal came to be.
Jorge: Well, the canal really is an answer to something that was being done – first, it was being done by the Spaniards when – the days of the colony. They used to use the Isthmus of Panama and practically where the existing route of the canal today to – they have what we call the Camino de Cruces which is the route or the camino they at that time for mules, et cetera, to pass the gold and silver that came from South America and route to Europe.
And then it’s because of the geographic location that we have and the narrowness of the Isthmus which made it ideal to cross to the – from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa. So eventually, it migrated from the mules and everything into the railroad and we have the first railroad that joined the Pacific and the Atlantic here in the Americas in 1855 and then this railroad eventually converted itself into the canal.
It was going to be – it was in fact a process of evolution that the area, the location and everything created the place to be able to make it – to build the canal. Then the French started with the idea of building a sea level canal because de Lesseps who was the architect or the engineer that made the Suez Canal made the sea level canal and that’s what he knew. So he tried then he sailed and then they tried again later on with locks but at that time, the company was already under in terms of finance.
So they failed and then the US took over and they had the idea of using locks and they used – it’s a variation from what the French had because the French locks were a lot smaller and the creation of Gatun Lake then prepared the whole – made it a lot easier to have – to be able to build the canal because then Gatun Lake is a navigational channel and it helped quite a bit to make it easier to build because if you would continue like with a sea level, they will still be digging. It was fantastic amount of work.
So that’s basically – the whole thing is the location, the general area where Panama is sitting, the narrowness of the Isthmus and the – God put it there so that man could use it and change route from one ocean to the other and make communications a lot easier.
Cesar: I see. So yes, so when you say sea level canal, is that – as opposed to a locked canal, correct?
Jorge: Yes, yes. Sea level canal, it’s just a trench open and that’s it.
Cesar: So what were some of the main engineering challenges when building it? I know that …
Jorge: I will tell you. It would sound not technical but really the main – the most important challenge that they had was sanitation. You see, when the jungle is at rest, just to call it that way, the animals live there and the mosquitoes live there and everybody is in perfect harmony.
Jorge: When man starts moving into the jungle and starts moving around and excavating, the whole atmosphere of the harmony that they have is disturbed and then the mosquitoes start going to the populations. And during that time, we have the yellow fever and malaria and all that. So that was a tremendous – caused a tremendous impact in the construction to the point that I understand that over 25,000 people died during the effort.
Cesar: Oh my goodness.
Jorge: In the French and the American effort. So the first topic is sanitation. After that, then they have to deal with two important technical aspects. One was in the excavation of the Gaillard Cut, the Culebra Cut that we call today which is a type of soil that exists here which is a residual soil. It’s called Cucaracha Shale which absorbs a little water and it’s very tricky to deal with and causes a lot of landslides. They have to deal with that, excavating that and make the whole cut stable.
And also you have to deal with the weather. You know, heavy rainfalls, the river flooding and controlling the floods. So that was two of the biggest aspects that they had at that time.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: Technical aspects.
Cesar: Wow, that’s 25,000 people. That’s amazing.
Jorge: And of course, added to that is the hiring of people to come to work in the canal. You needed strong people and there were a lot of people that came from the West Indies to work here from the French and the English islands and they provided the main labor force. They were very sturdy and healthy people that could withstand the elements.
Cesar: I see. It sounds like a major, major undertaking and eventually …
Jorge: It was. Of course. I can only imagine. It was.
Cesar: You mentioned that God put the Isthmus there for us to dig and then he sent us the jungle and the mosquitoes and the …
Jorge: Yes, everything is – it gives you a good one and it gives you a bad one. You have to deal with both.
Cesar: That’s right. Very good. Now, how does a canal work today? You mentioned the Gatun Lake and the locks. So let’s say if a ship is to come from the Pacific side to the Atlantic side for example. What is the procedure?
Jorge: OK. The procedure if a ship is coming from the Pacific, it goes into a navigational channel of the Pacific side and it goes into Miraflores Lock.
Jorge: Miraflores Lock is a two-step lock which elevates the ship from say elevation of sea level to about elevation 55 feet above sea level. I’m using feet because the canal – those elevations were still using them in feet. Not in the new one, but in the old one.
Jorge: Then you have a very small lake, Miraflores Lake and you will navigate through that lake and that’s about one and a half kilometer or something in terms of navigational channel and then you go into the Pedro Miguel Lock which elevates the ship nine more meters. OK? So you eventually will take the ship from elevation sea level to elevation about 85 feet above sea level or 27 meters. OK?
Jorge: That’s more or less 26 meters and something. Then you will navigate through the Gaillard Cut until you go into open waters of the Gatun Lake. It is all connected. So it’s one huge lake which has like a line which is a navigational channel but it’s the Gaillard Cut. It is the – when you pass Pedro Miguel and you’re going north in the ship, you have to pass the continental divide and that is the route that you take through the Gaillard Cut.
You cross the continental divide and then you are in the Atlantic side of the Isthmus and the Atlantic part of the continental divide and then – through then, you start navigating into the open waters of the Gatun Lake until you reach Gatun Locks. These Gatun Locks are a three-step lock. You go – immediately you go from elevation 85 or the lake or elevation 27 meters to sea level in three continuous steps.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: It’s a difference between the Pacific. In the Pacific, you have two steps and then another step; Miraflores, two steps; Pedro Miguel, one step. In the Atlantic, you just have Gatun, three steps and that’s it.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: So that would be the route and then what we do today in terms of transport of ships is that we start with a convoy system. All the ships that are in the Pacific are going to cross, start early in the morning towards the north. And all these ships in the Atlantic that are going to cross, start early in the morning to the Pacific. The idea is that the biggest ships go first on both sides so that they cross each other in the middle of Gatun Lake.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: And they don’t have to cross each other in the Culebra Cut.
Cesar: OK, or in the locks.
Jorge: Yes, yes.
Cesar: OK. Well, that’s …
Jorge: So we use the convoy mode to move ships daily.
Cesar: And what is the current traffic through the canal? It sounds like a – you can’t take a whole lot of ships at the same time within the system, right?
Jorge: No. The thing is that we – the capacity of the canal, we are – today, we have gone to measure in terms of tonnage that can pass through the canal because the capacity of the canal is directly related to the mix of ships that we get and this is – like if you visualize an airport, we have here jets and we have light planes and we have propeller planes and things like that because the ships vary very much in size. Then what we have done is that we analyze. For example, we could pass 26 Panamax ships in one day.
Cesar: Sorry, what’s a Panamax ship?
Jorge: A Panamax ship is defined as the largest ship that can fit into the existing Panama Canal Lock.
Jorge: Which is today a with 100-foot of beam, of 965 feet in length and 100-foot wide, to call it that way, so that everybody can understand.
Cesar: OK. OK.
Jorge: Now if – or we could pass like 60 ships of what we call the reefers or refrigerated ships which are the smallest ones. So then the capacity of the canal varies depending on the mix of ships that we get.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: So then we have decided that the best way to measure the canal capacity is in terms of tonnage and we are right there right now in the maximum tonnage that we can handle, which is around 330 million tons a year. With the expanded canal, we will double that.
Jorge: By adding one more lane.
Cesar: I see. So the main need then for – because just for the audience, there’s a current expansion project there going on. So the main need for this expansion project was to raise the tonnage, correct?
Jorge: The capacity – yes, to raise the capacity because we are saturated, to put it that way. So we need to expand our business and the problem is that in order for us to remain competitive, we need to provide more capacity so that we can continue being as efficient as we are because as we get clogged, to put it in other language, if the canal is getting so much capacity that we cannot handle it properly, our efficiency levels are going to go down. The trust that our clients have will be reduced and we are a service company. We need to do service and in a very efficient way to remain competitive.
Cesar: OK. Now that you talked about that, maybe just a little bit. So who owns the Panama Canal? I know it went back to the Panamanian government in 1999 but in terms of handling the day to day operations for example. Is that …
Jorge: Yes, the Republic of Panama, what they did was to put a title in the constitution so that the canal is independent – is owned by the government of Panama but it is handled in an independent manner so that it will not be politicized and will remain efficient. It’s to protect it from becoming politicized. It is run by a board of directors that has 10 members and one presiding member. These 10 members are named by the government but they are not named all at the same time. They are named for 10 years in an escalated type of thing so that they change every two or three years. They change a couple.
So then they – and they function very independently as they did now in the naming of the new administrator to replace the existing administrator. They named the person right from our – one of the directors that we have, one of the vice presidents that we have has a lot of experience because they are – that way, we are maintaining this without politics.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: And keeping it efficient. That’s the way it’s structured.
Cesar: Fantastic. OK. Well, that’s good enough. Going back to the current project there.
Cesar: Compare it to the way the original canal was built. What are some of the challenges now and how are you approaching it?
Jorge: OK. The way we have now is that we went through all the – great amount of studies to make it modern, to make it practical, to make it safe, to make it environmentally acceptable. We did over – more than a hundred studies. We modeled quality of water. We modeled everything. We modeled the amount of water that we were going to be requiring because the canal runs on fresh water so that’s a limited water supply.
So we came up with this proposal which was a bigger lock in terms of length, in terms of width and in terms of breadth. OK? So that we could handle bigger ships because the industry was moving. The industry of shipbuilding was moving towards getting bigger ships so might as well – since we’re going to be expanding, we might as well build a canal that has the capacity to pass the biggest ships that were built in the industry. The main driver of the industry of shipping for the Panama Canal is the container ship industry.
Jorge: Basically it is the transportation of containers from the East Coast of Asia to the East Coast of the United States.
Jorge: OK? That is our biggest market. So we went into that and we found which sized ship would be the driver and we designed the lock for that type of ship. So then we settled on one thing, the size of the ship. Then came, for example, the water supply. We added water-saving basins in order to reduce the amount of water that we would use by every lockage. These water-saving basins are expensively used in Germany, in inland canals that they have over there.
They have very reduced water supply so they use the water-saving basins and they pump the extra water back. We cannot pump back the water because our water will be mixed with salt because we are connecting with the ocean. But the new lock being 2.3 times bigger in volume is going to use seven percent less water than the existing locks.
Cesar: Wow. So let me – that’s kind of news to me. So the water from the Pacific and the Atlantic, they don’t mix during the – in the current system there.
Jorge: No. You will see that you have a big – you have the Atlantic and then you have the Pacific and in the middle, you have like 50 miles of freshwater in a pond and that makes like a barrier so that species from the Atlantic don’t go to the Pacific and vice versa.
Jorge: Which is an environmental plus because the sea level canal would create an environmental catastrophe because you would be allowing the Atlantic and the Pacific species to mix and it will be a tragedy.
Cesar: Right. OK. And that would be – so is Gatun Lake for example fresh water?
Jorge: Yes, Gatun Lake is fresh water and it gets freshwater. The Gatun Lake is formed by a dam in the Chagres River. This dam which makes Gatun Lake and the City of Panama and the City of Colon and all the terminal cities use water for drinking from Gatun Lake and from the Chagres River.
Jorge: And that was another of our studies is to make sure that when we build this additional lane, we would keep the water as good as it is today so that it would be very easy to make it potable.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: For population drinking.
Cesar: OK. And when you use the outmost locks, then you do lose some freshwater to the ocean. Is that correct?
Jorge: Yes, we are passing – every ship would use about – today uses around 55 million gallons.
Jorge: Per lockage, per transit. So it’s the water that is used to pass the ship.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: And the new lock would use seven percent less than that.
Cesar: Interesting. But with a lot more capacity …
Jorge: Yes, exactly, exactly.
Jorge: And then there are other things that are of interest that are – for example, right now in the existing canal, locomotives help position the ships in the locks. In the new ones, we are going to be using the tugs to use that. We won’t have any locomotives. That’s part of the changes of the industry because of the size of the ships.
The tugs are ready to be used to be able to handle ships like that size. There is another technical consideration; two of them that are important is that we – the existing locks are filled from the bottom. The water goes from the floor up. In the new lock, we’re going to fill the water laterally. The reason for that is that we only have one lane. In the existing canal, we have two lanes. So for maintenance purposes, we can shut one lane and we can continue operating on a reduced capacity but we can continue operating.
Cesar: OK. So …
Jorge: It’s always open.
Cesar: So you will have a lock at the front and the back and in the middle to separate the two lanes. Is that correct?
Jorge: Yes. The thing is that now, with a new one, we only have one lane and then we want to keep it open.
Jorge: So if you fill laterally, you can shut one side. Do maintenance on one side of the hydraulic system and keep that lock operating with the other filling from the other side. So the idea is always to keep the lanes open.
Cesar: I see.
Jorge: For traffic. And then one big change also is the type of gate. The existing gates of the canal are called miter gates and they open like a door. The new one is the gates that we call rolling gates that they slide and there’s only – and they slide and it’s a very interesting system because they are filled with air. So that a 4000-ton gate really puts 200 tons pressure on the foundation. So it’s really in – and it works like a wheelbarrow. They are existing and in operation in Europe and this is the way the bigger, wider locks need to use gates like that because the miter gates have [0:21:41] [Indiscernible] hinges and things like that.
Cesar: So these gates are …
Cesar: So they are a lot lighter. Is that what you mean? The new …
Jorge: They are lighter on the floor because they have to slide on the floor but they are a lot heavier and bigger than the existing ones. You can imagine. Just picture the biggest gates that we will be installing are 33 meters high, 55 meters wide and 10 meters in thickness.
Cesar: And you need to push this …
Jorge: Yes, and it works with a little cable which is about a two-inch cable. It’s the ones that move it because of the floating effect of them that I mentioned before.
Cesar: That’s fantastic.
Jorge: So it’s very interesting technically.
Cesar: Yes. I will – can you repeat the name of this technology so I can put a link on the show notes? I think people will be interested.
Jorge: The technology is like a wheelbarrow gate. It is – for example, if you go to the Barendrecht locks in Belgium, they have one that is very much alike.
Jorge: They could picture that and look at that gate working and there’s another – but it’s very difficult for me to pronounce this or something which is next to Barendrecht.
Cesar: OK. I will look that up and put a link on the show notes because I think that’s very interesting. Now – well, that’s great information there and if the people want to learn more about the canal and the current project – well, before I ask that question, when is the current project expected to be complete?
Jorge: The project should be operationally complete in the year 2015.
Cesar: OK. So it’s well under way, I’m assuming.
Jorge: Yes, yes. Right now, it’s already talking shape and if you look into our website, you can probably see there’s a camera for the expansion and you can see the progress that it has.
Cesar: Right. Yes, I will put a link to that as well so people can see that. And so as I was asking, if people want to learn more about the canal and the current project, where should they go?
Jorge: We have a website which is called Panama Canal. There, they have the list of all the stories that were made. You can read most of the stories. You can access them and you can see the websites. You can see the cameras and the website. You can see the cameras on the existing canal, the Miraflores Lock, the Gatun Locks, the ships and the lanes. You can see it from right there and a thrill is to come to Panama and go visit the sites and we have a very nice place in Miraflores Lock for the – and it’s always filled with tourists coming and all the passenger ships that come by. You can see them very close because they’re crossing very much in front of us. So that’s it.
Cesar: That sounds like engineering Disneyland.
Jorge: It is. It is and for us, it’s particularly interesting. We’re doing a service to the country and it really is a service to the world because of the economies of scale that we would be bringing with the new canal and helping navigation and also that the economies of scale, the ship – what we call the old water route from the East Coast of Asia to the East Coast of the United States. It’s the cheapest one. It’s the one through the Panama Canal. This is always open, no strikes, no problems so no traffic, car traffic or truck traffic, et cetera.
Cesar: Well, it sounds like you and your team there are doing an excellent job both in operating the canal and with the new project. So I think – Jorge, thank you for your time. I appreciate all the information and it was fascinating to me and I’m sure the audience is going to gain a lot from listening and …
Jorge: Wonderful, Cesar.
Cesar: All right. OK.
Jorge: If you need any more information, give me a call.
Cesar: I will do that. Gracias, Jorge.
Jorge: OK. Ciao.