Panama Canal expansion in its final stages

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At a cost of $5.25bn, the Panama Canal expansion programme is the largest single investment in the country’s history. Approved by national referendum in October 2006, the project will see the addition of a third lane of traffic to the existing two-lane canal.

Since it began in September 2007, the expansion programme has created more than 30,000 new jobs, according to the Panama Canal Authority ( Autoridad del Canal de Panamá, ACP). Almost eight years later, the overall expansion programme reached 90% completion at the end of June 2015, and the new set of locks are expected to become operational in the first quarter of 2016. As the expansion programme reaches its final stages, the ACP has begun training for the operation and maintenance of the new water channel and locks.

New Locks

Representing nearly 60% of the project’s total budget – costing some $3.2bn – the new set of locks is the most complex component of the expansion programme. The design and construction of the new locks was awarded to the international consortium known as Grupos Unidos por el Canal (GUPC), made up of Sacyr Vallehermoso of Spain, Salini-Impregilo of Italy, Jan de Nul of Belgium and Constructora Urbana of Panama in July 2009. Work began in August of the same year.

The project entailed the design and construction of two new lock complexes in the Pacific (south-west of the existing Miraflores locks) and Atlantic terminals (east of the existing Gatun Locks). The new lock complexes create a third lane of traffic to allow the passage of New Panamax vessels, with dimensions up to 366 metres in length, 49 metres in width and 15 metres of draft, or with a cargo volume of up to 170,000 deadweight tonnage (DWT) and 13,200 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).

Each set of locks contains three chambers, each with three water-saving basins (70 metres wide by 5.5 metres deep), totalling 18 basins, a lateral filling and emptying system and eight rolling gates. A total of 16 rolling gates – eight in each complex – will operate from concrete recesses located perpendicular to the lock chambers. The lock chambers are 427 metres long, 55 metres wide and 18 metres deep. A total of 4.3m cu metres of concrete are required to complete the construction of the new locks. In contrast to the existing canal’s mitre gates, the new lock configuration will allow maintenance of the gate on-site without the need to remove it – reducing maintenance times and operation interruptions – since each recess functions as a sort of dry dock.

Built by Italian subcontractor Cimolai SpA at a cost of $548m, the gates have varying dimensions depending on their location in the lock chamber; they are 57.6 metres long, eight to 10 metres wide, with heights from 22 to 33 metres, and weighing on average 3200 tonnes (given the varying sizes weight can range from 2100 to 4200 tonnes). The 16 gates arrived from Italy in four separate shipments, starting in August 2013. Installation of the eight gates of the Atlantic side was completed on April 1, 2014. Weighing 4232 tonnes and measuring 57.6m wide, 10 metres long and 33 metres high, the last gate for the Pacific side was installed in April 2015. With the gates in place, coming months will see progressive flooding of the new lock chambers and electromechanical work begin, according to the ACP.

Rocky Road

The road has not been smooth, however. Work on the lock complexes came to a halt in early 2014 following a dispute between GUPC and the ACP, with GUPC claiming that cost overruns had reached $1.6bn. The dispute ended after an agreement between GUPC and the APC was reached in March 2014. However, in late 2014 Panamanian authorities complained of the low quality of the cement being used by the consortium.

GUPC responded by requesting an increase to the contract price, and threatening to suspend all work in January 2015 until its demands were met. In January 2015 the Dispute Adjudication Board (DAB), an independent body established within the framework of the agreement to settle disputes, approved a claim of $233m in favour of GUPC and the extension of the contract by six months. The claim is one of many GUPC has filed, seeking a total of $2.6bn in costs. The ACP has requested that a panel of international arbitrators review the DAB’s decision.

Pacific & Atlantic Entrances

A second component of the expansion was the dredging of both the Pacific and Atlantic entrances. Awarded to Belgian contractor Dredging International, dredging of the Pacific entrance consisted of widening the navigational channel to a minimum of 225 metres and deepening it to 15.5 metres below mean low water springs, as well as partial construction of the south access to the set of locks on the Pacific side. To this end, a total of 8.7m cu metres of material was removed. Work was completed in late 2012.

Dredging of the Atlantic entrance was awarded to Jan de Nul. It involved dredging 13.8 km and widening the Atlantic entrance navigational channel from 198 metres to a minimum of 225 metres, and the north access channel to the new set of locks on the Atlantic to a minimum of 218 metres. After dredging and dry excavation of 18m cu metres of material, this component was completed in April 2013.

Pacific Access Channel

The expansion also includes construction of a 6.1 km-long access channel to connect the new set of locks on the Pacific side with the Culebra Cut, for which 50m cu metres of earth were excavated. The first three of the four phases of this component have been completed.

A consortium made up of the construction companies FCC of Spain, ICA of Mexico and MECO of Costa Rica is in charge of the fourth phase, which includes the construction of a rock dam, known as the 1E Borinquen Dam, to block the waters from Gatun Lake. Foundation work for the almost 2.3 km-long and three-metre-deep concrete cut-off wall running beneath and along the dam’s centre line was completed at the end of 2014 and work on the Pacific access channel reached 88.3% completion at the end of the first quarter of 2015.

To improve the water supply for canal operations, the maximum operating water level of Gatun Lake is also being raised by 45 cm, from 26.7 to 27.1 metres. This will enable additional water storage capacity of nearly 200m cu metres, and facilitate the transit of around 1100 additional vessels on an annual basis, according to the ACP. As of March 31, 2015 this component of the project was 96% complete.

Gatun Lake & Culebra Cut

Another important component of the expansion is the dredging of Gatun Lake and Culebra Cut, which entails removing roughly 30m cu metres of material to deepen and widen the navigational channels. Work in the Culebra Cut was completed at the end of 2012. Dredging of Gatun Lake is ongoing, with most of it being conducted by the Canal Dredging Division. The remainder of the works were awarded to contractors Jan De Nul and Dredging International. As of March 31, 2015 this component was 93% complete.


In preparation for the opening of the canal’s third lane, the ACP is also remodelling and modernising the Maritime Traffic Control Centre, with updated computer applications to meet the expanded canal requirements, and enable greater efficiency in the processing of vessels and reporting of activities in the operation of the new locks. To assist New Panamax vessels in making the transit, in the 2014 fiscal year the ACP acquired eight new tugboats from Spain, at a cost of $11.3m per unit, with up to 80 tonnes of bollard pull.

The ACP has also made significant advances in its training programme for pilots and tugboat captains at the Simulation, Investigation and Maritime Development Centre, where simulation of New Panamax vessels transiting through the new channels and lock structures is taking place. According to the ACP, more traffic controllers, port entry coordinators and admeasurers are currently undergoing training.

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The Report: Panama 2015

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