In 2004, Steve Hooper, a superintendent for Canadian Pacific, who captains boats for recreation, had a layover in Panama. To kill some time, he rode a Panama Canal Railway Company (PCRC) passenger train and enjoyed the experience. Out of curiosity, upon return to Canada and his regular job, he sent an email to PCRC to learn more about the railroad. That email began an exchange that would go on for four years. In 2008, after 21 years with Canadian Pacific, Hooper decided he was ready for a change and accepted a position as director of operations for PCRC.
In 2000, Brian Dunlap worked for Neosho Central America, a U.S. contractor working on the rehabilitation of PCRC. Originally from Minnesota, Dunlap began his career 22 years ago working as a contractor. He worked as a contractor on the project to rebuild PCRC, and upon completion of PCRC in 2002, was recruited to work for PCRC as track supervisor.
Both railroaders say they don't miss the cold weather of their native homes and agree that Panama is warm, the countryside is beautiful and they like working for PCRC.
PCRC provides ocean-to-ocean transshipment service between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The 47.6 mile railroad serves as an efficient intermodal line for world commerce and complements the existing transportation infrastructure provided by the Canal, the Colon free trade zone and the Pacific and Atlantic ports. PCRC's wholly-owned subsidiary, Panarail Tourism, offers luxury passenger service for business commuters, tourists and private charters.
Hooper and Dunlap described what makes PCRC unique.
"Whereas larger railroads would face greater challenges in getting a train from point A to point B, our challenges are at the terminals," explained Hooper. "We live or die by the terminals. When they're running well, everything else falls into place."
"At a larger railroad, you have more sidings to get trains out of the away. While we have two sidings, we're basically running a train every hour to hour and a half. Maintenance windows must be carefully timed and coordinated around freight trains between the ports and regular passenger trains."
PCRC moves about 7,500 containers a week on about six to eight trains a day north- and southbound. Freight trains and passenger trains make up about 16 to 18 train movements a day. If there is a cruise ship, the train count on the 47.6 mile railroad can climb to 18 or 20 trains per day. October to February is the high season for tourism.
Additional challenges are created when tourism season overlaps the rainy season from September to December.
"Because Panama is a tropical climate, there is a rainy season that generates 25 to 35 inches of rain," said Dunlap. "During that season, we have an intensive program to ensure adequate drainage and track structure maintenance."
Between the main line, terminals and switching yards, Dunlap's team maintains about 57 miles of track. This year, they are also managing several track construction projects.
"Recently, we started working on a siding extension of 1,800 feet bringing the siding to a total length of 5,000 feet at Gamboa, which is located about half-way across the railroad," said Dunlap. "Our second and newest siding, Mount Lirio, was put into operation in 2009."
In 2013, PCRC will construct track extensions in the container yards on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the railroad.
"While PCRC is unique, at the end of the day, railroading is railroading," said Hooper. "Everything here is done in house and all 200 employees take an all-hands-on-deck approach to getting things done."
"Our short, high-volume railroad (PCRC moved 400,000 containers across the Isthmus of Panama in 2012) provides unique challenges," said PCRC president Tom Kenna. "However, all of our employees share a passion for railroading, and together, we carry on the 160-plus year tradition of the Panama Railroad, a true national treasure."