The Panama Canal Authority has advertised that the massive project underway to expand the man-made shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans will enable transits by 12,500-TEU vessels, but a top official now says the facility's operating capacity could bump up to accommodate even larger ships.
Rodolfo Sabonge, executive vice president for planning and business development, told American Shipper
at a major transportation conference in Washington that larger ships will fit in the new lock chambers and the agency may allow passage by vessels up to 14,100 TEUs once operational issues are ironed out.
"The lock chamber already has the width to accommodate bigger ships, but we're not starting operations with a wider beam," he said.
The expansion of the waterway is officially half complete. Work is still scheduled to end by October 2014, with operations commencing in 2015. Alberto Alemán Zubieta
, who stepped down as administrator of the Panama Canal Authority in September, last month said ships will begin using the wider locks by the middle of 2015. The original timetable was to open in late 2014, but it was pushed back to early 2015 and then to mid-year, although the slippage is not unusual for a project of such magnitude.
In addition to design and construction of the third set of locks, the $5.25 billion job includes excavation of new access channels, dredging of canal entrances and dredging of key sections of the waterway.
The 12,500-TEU vessels that will be able to use the wider locks are three-times the size of today's Panamax vessels.
Operating rules for the new locks have been developed for ships with beams of 49 meters, which can support up to 20 rows of containers. The liner industry has asked the Panama Canal Authority if it can adjust the protocols to accept ships with beams of 51.2 meters, which can hold an extra row of containers, Sabonge said.
The marketing chief said canal officials are willing to grant the carriers' request after the new infrastructure goes through a break-in period and workers become familiar with the new operating practices, he said.
The transition to the next range of container ships depends on the learning curve for pilots, tugboat operators, lock engineers and others who have to understand the behavior of the water, how to maneuver bigger ships in the new locks and other factors, Sabonge said. - Eric Kulisch