Experience a Historic Journey Across the Isthmus of Panama!

Written by Peter Lauffer
November 28, 2020

A journey on the Panama Railway is one of the great train rides of the world. In addition to its remarkable history, the railroad offers a breathtakingly scenic path across the Isthmus of Panama. The line flanks the Panama Canal while passing through lush rainforests, cruising alongside the Canal’s massive locks, traversing the historic Gaillard Cut, and gliding over numerous narrow channels of Gatun Lake.

History of the Panama Railway

Panama Canal Railway Map
Panama Railway Map

After the surge of settlers moving to the West Coast of the United States due to the gold rush, the United States focused on ensuring a secure, reliable, and rapid transit between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For this reason, Congress authorized the operation of two lines of mail vessels: one from New York to Chagres (in Panama), and another from Oregon and California to Panama City.

At this stage, the transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean or vice versa took four or five days. William H. Aspinwall, the man who had resumed the operation of the company “Pacific Mail Steamships,” initiated a plan to build a railway across the isthmus. With this goal in mind, he and his partners created a company that raised one million US dollars from the sale of shares and subsequently undertook the project.

One of the rate photos of the Panama Railroad construction
One of the rate photos of the Panama Railroad construction

The project to build the railroad started in August of 1850, but very soon the difficulties became evident. The heat was suffocating, and the torrential rains for almost half of the year required the workers to work standing in waters up to four feet deep. Yellow fever and malaria claimed many of the workers’ lives. Despite the constant importation of a large number of workers, the work sometimes stagnated due to lack of labor.

Luck reappeared in November, 1851, when two steamships were forced to take refuge in Limón Bay due to a storm. At this time, 7 miles (11 km) of rail had been laid to Gatun, so it was possible to disembark the migrants’ cargo ships and transport the workers via the railroad for the first part of their trip through the isthmus. The company’s directors immediately ordered passenger carriages, and the railroad began operating even with 40 miles (64 km) of rail not yet placed. This action quickly increased the value of the company’s shares, allowing the rest of the project to be financed.

In January, 1855, the railroad reached Culebra, the Continental Divide, from the Atlantic. By midnight on January 27, 1855, a second brigade working in less demanding conditions reached Culebra from Panama City. The workers immediately joined the rails, and the next day, the first locomotive traveled from ocean to ocean.

The railroad line, built with double tracks, was proclaimed the engineering marvel of that era. The Atlantic Terminal is located in Colon (formerly Aspinwall), and the Pacific Terminal in Panama City.

Train during the Panama Canal Construction
Train during the Panama Canal Construction

Panama Canal Railway during the construction of the Panama Canal

The railroad played an important factor in the construction of the Panama Canal. During the creation of the Canal, parts of the railroad route had to be moved. At the same time, considerable improvements to the rail system were made. The Canal and the renovation work on the Panama Canal Railway culminated in 1914. Due to its strategic importance, the United States contracted the right to manage and use the Panama Canal forever. In the same contract, Panama had to surrender to the US a 7 km strip on each side of the Canal.

The owners made some additional improvements to the Panama Canal Railroad after the Second World War. The US Government eventually handed over power of the Panama Canal Railroad to the government of Panama in 1979. On June 19, 1998, the government of Panama returned control of the railroad to the Panama Canal Railway Company (PCRC), a joint venture between the Kansas City Southern Railroad and the private equity company Lanigan Holdings, LLC.

Inside the Dome Car of the Panama Canal Railway
Dome Car Panama Railway

The Panama Railway Today

The Panama Railway Company fitted the railroad in the years 2000 and 2001 to handle large containers, complementing the cargo transportation of the Panama Canal.

Today, the line is single track with some strategically placed double track sections. Since 2006 the driving force includes ten ex-Amtrak locomotives and one GP10 Diesel locomotive. The rolling equipment is composed of passenger carriages with glass domes dating from 1938.

Panama Canal Railway Today
Panama Canal Railway Today

🚂 Travel Tip: The train from Panama to Colon leaves from Monday to Friday: 

Departure from Panama City, 07:15 AM
Arrival at Colon, 08:15 AM
Departure from Colon, 17:15 PM 
Arrival at Panama City, 18:15

Atlantic Bridge over the Panama Canal in Colon
Atlantic Bridge over the Panama Canal in Colon

A journey on the morning train from Panama City to Colon can be favorably combined with a drive over the breathtaking Puerto Atlantico to Fuerte San Lorenzo. On the way back you can make an extensive visit to the Aguas Claras lock to watch huge container carriers passing through the canal. To experience all of this, you will need to hire a private driver or else participate in a tour. The city of Colon is not particularly interesting to visit. 

The evening train from Colon to Panama City is much less crowded. The train arrives in Panama City just before sunset. For the views, however, I recommend the morning train. 

The Panama Canal Railway is part of our fascinating tour “Coffee, Rum and Trains in Colombia and Panama.”

Get inspired by some photos of this amazing trip:
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