Modernization of the Panama Canal

The $5.25 billion expansion project, to open in early 2015, includes the installation of new locks that will allow ships to pass carrying three times the volume of cargo carried today. The increased capacity could be a boon for U.S. port business. Read related article.

Locks raise ships from sea level up to the level of inland waterways.
The canal covers
about 50 miles.

Wider, more efficient locks*

The project includes construction of new lock complexes on the Pacific and Atlantic sides. The locks will use massive culverts that can fill a chamber in as quickly as 10 minutes. Each lock will have its own water basin system that reuses 60 percent of the water required for each transit. New rolling gates will allow for easier servicing.




Each year, between 13,000 to 14,000 ships pass through the Panama Canal, which never closes.

Evolution of container ships

Post-Panamax ships make up 16 percent of the world's container fleet today but carry 45 percent of the cargo. New Panamax ships will be the largest that can pass through the new locks in early 2015.

Triple E
18,000 TEU*

New Panamax
12,000-13,000 TEU

Post-Panamax range
4,000-8,000 TEU

Panamax range
3,400-4,500 TEU

Fully cellular
1,000-2,500 TEU

Early containers
500-800 TEU

*TEU, or Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit, is a measure of cargo capacity.

Preparing U.S. ports for Post-Panamax vessels

U.S. harbor size limits where the largest container ships can dock. A port is considered "post-Panamax ready" if it has a channel depth of 50 feet, sufficient channel width and turning basin, and dock/crane compatibility.



Los Angeles

Long Beach

New York



Panama Canal

Post-Panamax vessels are projected to represent 62 percent of total container ship capacity by 2030.

SOURCES: Panama Canal Authority; Rodrigue, J-P et al. (2012) "The Geography of Transport Systems," Hofstra University; Institute for Water Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2012 report.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of the "Existing lock" illustration above depicted the gates of the lock pointing away from the Panamax ship. The lock gates should have pointed toward the ship because it is moving down from a higher water level.
GRAPHIC: Alberto Cuadra, Gene Thorp, Bill Webster - The Washington Post. Published Jan. 13, 2013.