Railroad lessons for the new Panama Canal


The New Panama Canal: A Risky Bet takes a detailed look at how construction and technological problems plague the project. This passage caught my eye:

In simple terms, to be successful, the new canal needs enough water, durable concrete and locks big enough to safely accommodate the larger ships. On all three counts, it has failed to meet expectations, according to dozens of interviews with contractors, canal workers, maritime experts and diplomats, as well as a review of public and internal records.

Wow, that’s harsh. If you dig a big ditch, it had better not collapse. If you depend on a lock-and-dam system, you’d better be able to accommodate the ships you expect to use the system. If neither of these are sure things, your project is in deep trouble.

I wrote about the original Panama Canal project back in 2014 (the MinnPost article is here). John Stevens, the chief engineer for the Panama Canal, had been the chief engineer for the Great Northern Railway. Stevens himself surveyed the route through Montana, Idaho, and Washington, and surveyed Marias Pass and what came to be known as Stevens Pass.

Stevens learned two important lessons from railroad construction that he applied to the Panama Canal:

  1. Digging is the last thing to be done.  That is, you need to plan every step of the process, including how labor and materials will be brought to the site, how labor will be housed and fed, how materials will be stored, how all of this will be applied on the construction site itself, etc.  Only when this is all in place do you execute the plan.
  2. Always use the best materials, even if that means increasing costs. This will be a problem in the short run but will pay off in the long run. Clear evidence of this is the fact that the modern BNSF Railway still uses the Great Northern route across North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington as the key element in its Northern Transcon. The Northern Pacific, constructed before the Great Northern, used inferior materials and a followed a route that allowed for faster construction but higher costs in the long run.

Those building the new Panama Canal would have done well to heed Stevens’s lessons.