February 25, 2002
It takes 8-10 hours for the average ship to transit the Panama Canal. YOU can cross the isthmus by train in under an hour. You’ll travel in style and comfort, in creatively refurbished coaches from the best of the classic 1950’s U.S. streamliners. Some have been fitted with ten-foot-long open observation decks; one has a full-length dome with roof-level seating.
Opened in 1855, the 47-mile Panama Canal Railway was the world’s first transcontinental railway. Once badly deteriorated, It’s now been rebuilt into a steel superhighway capable of hauling trainloads of double-stacked shipping containers at 60 m.p.h. No nostalgic ‘clickety-clack’ here: you’re on continuous welded rail of the heaviest weight currently used on North American railroads.
In fact, my only gripe was: The train runs too fast for serious photography. My photos along Gailliard Cut were unpublishable. Only when the train slowed down for the Gamboa maintenance and dredging base was I able to get photos good enough to share.
At times, the train runs close enough to the canal for riders to see locks and shipping activity. At others, it veers into the jungle --- if the sun is right, we’re surrounded by green and yellow-green rainforests that almost seem to glow. You’d never see that from the water.
Northbound, we first pass the Miraflores Locks. They’re too far from the tracks to inspect, but we’ll get a good look at Miraflores Dam, which helps control the canal’s water levels and generates the power for the locks. After a short tunnel, we’ll get a better view of the smaller Pedro Miguel Lock.
Scenic highlights of the trip are:
- Galliard Cut: The narrowest part of the canal, where the engineers cut their way through shale and bedrock to cross the Continental Divide. It’s also called ‘Culebra’ Cut, from the Spanish word for ‘snake’; the canal curved like one until being widened.
- Gatun Lake: We’re far from the shipping channel, working our way through a maze of small islands or crossing open water on long causeways. These are the backwaters: Again, something you’d never see from a ship. We cross two drawbridges in this region, over the Gatun and Chagres Rivers.
Trivia Question: Do you know the origin of the word ‘posh’? It’s said that the luxury P&O Steamship Line arranged to house its wealthiest passengers on the sunny side of the ship in both directions: ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’. That’s also the rule of the railroad: The canal is always on your left outbound, right returning.
January 2002 schedules had the train departing Panama City at 7:15 a.m., returning at 6:15 p.m. and spending nine hours at Colon.
What to do during those nine hours? Read on. Many of the activities described here can be pre-arranged through your hotel concierge desk or a travel agency. Some of our train passengers just took a bus back to Panama City --- it only costs $2 or so. But there are better things to do ...
From journal Colon: Panama's Caribbean Side