The Panama Canal Railroad

by Ken Humphreys

It may seem strange to refer to a Panama Canal Railroad but there is indeed one - or twelve to be precise - each very short and with totally straight trackage, at least in a horizontal direction. I am referring to the electric railroads which run the length of both sides of the three sets of locks on the Panama Canal. The locks are in pairs and four tracks are required per lock set. Ships do not enter the locks under their own power. Instead they are pulled into the locks by geared electric locomotives or "mules", so named for the mules which pulled canal barges more than a century ago. Ships passing through the Canal have as little as two feet of clearance on each side necessitating very careful control of position in the locks. For this purpose, four mules control the position of each ship in the locks, one on each side at the stern and one on each side at the the bow. The mules use heavy cables and powerful winches to keep the ship centered in the locks. The locos are geared because of the extremely steep climbs which are required (up to 85 feet at the Gatun locks). The locks at Gatun (the Caribbean Sea northern end of the Canal) are a total of 960 meters in length with a lift of 85 feet. On the Pacific Ocean southern end, the Miraflores locks are 640 meters in total length with a lift of 54 feet. The intermediate Pedro Miguel lock is 320 meters in length with a 31 foot lift. The Panama Canal Railroad may possibly be the shortest in the world but is critical for safe passage of ships through the Canal. This page shows the mules in action in a sequence of shots taken from the deck of a ship during a passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea in October 2002 and from another ship passing through the Gatun Locks in January 2013.

Click on each image below to see its full sized version. Hit your back button to return and view the next photo. All images are copyrighted by Ken Humphreys.

Image Description
The Gatun locks. Note the "mule" in front of the building.
Closeup of mule #112 at the Gatun Locks.
Two mules waiting at the Gatun locks. The track which looks like a wye is a service track, not a wye.
A mule pulling on steel cables to keep a container ship centered in the Gatun lock. The very close clearance between the lock wall and the ship is evident in this photo. The other three mules are on a storage track and can swiitch to eitther of the two outside tracks along the lock walls.
The bow of the container ship. Notice the mules on each side of the lock. They are pulling steelcables to center the ship and pull it into the lock.
The Miraflores locks. Note the "mule" in front of the building and the steep drop in the track on the lock wall.
The Miraflores locks. Note the tracks along each wall of both locks.
Electric locomotive #100 entering one of the Miraflores lock tracks
Electric locomotive #120 passing beside a container ship in one of the Miraflores locks. Note the extremely close clearance between the ship and the lock wall.
Locomotive #13 beside a ship about to enter the Canal. Note the rope from the ship to the locomotive cable. The cable will be pulled up and attached to the ship so that the mule can guide the ship through the Canal.
A locomotive descending the steep grade between two locks
Retired Panama Canal locomotive #672 on display
Track mounted derricks at Gatun Locks
Close up shot of one of the derrick cars

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