Main Components of the Panama Canal

Main Components of the Panama Canal

In 2016, the expansion of the canal was completed with two new sets of locks brought online. The Panama Canal system is composed of two lock systems, the old locks (built in 1914) and the expanded locks (built in 2016). On the Atlantic side, the Gatun (1914) and Agua Clara (2016) locks link the Caribbean Sea and Lake Gatun. On the Pacific side, the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks (1914) and the Cocoli Locks (2016) link Lake Gatun to the Pacific Ocean. The Culebra Cut (Gaillard Cut) represents the continental divide line and was the main capacity restriction of the canal system since it could only transit one ship at a time before the expansion.

After the 2016 expansion, the Culebra Cut was able to accommodate two ships at once. To supply this locks system, a large amount of water is required, a purpose fulfilled by the artificially created Lake Gatun, which level is controlled by the Gatun Dam and supplied by the Alajuela Lake. Running parallel to the canal is the Panama Canal Railway designed to absorb the extra traffic generated by ships too large to use the facilities, as well as moving containers between the Atlantic and Pacific terminals without the need to pay the canal toll. The Panama Canal is under the jurisdiction of the Panama Canal Authority, which controls an area that used to be called the Panama Canal Zone, an extraterritorial entity that was controlled by the United States until its retrocession to Panama in 1999.

Both the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the canal have seen the development of significant port transshipment facilities since the 1990s, with Panama acting as a major transshipment hub in the region. Still, additional terminal facilities are planned by the Panama Canal Authority.

  • On the Atlantic side, an agreement was reached in 2016 with a Chinese consortium to build the Panama Colon Container Port (PCCP), a post-Panamax facility with an expected capacity of 2.5 million TEU. However, the concession was revoked in 2021 as the consortium was found not complying with the contract terms. The project remains incomplete and delayed, with a new concession signed in 2022 with Terminal Investment Limited (TIL), a branch of the shipping giant MSC.
  • On the Pacific side, in 2011, the Panama International Terminal was opened and operated by PSA (Port of Singapore Authority), adding 2 million TEU in capacity. In 2016, the Panama Canal Authority issued a request for proposals to global terminal operators for the Corozal Container Terminal project. The two phases of the project would add 5.3 million TEU of capacity. However, after pre-qualification, no bidder emerged to take over the project, which is on hold.

All of the above would make Panama one of the most important container terminal clusters of the Americas.