The CONUS Land Bridge: A Panama Canal Alternative

by Darlene F. DeAngelo

The railroad network across the continental United States (CONUS) offers a strategic alternative to the canal across Panama.

On 1 January 2000, ownership of the Panama Canal passed from the United States to the Government of Panama. The Panama Canal Treaty of 1977, which provided for this transition, included provisions that permit the United States to intervene militarily if there are disruptions to canal service. Since the initial proposal was made to transfer the canal to Panama, there has been much discussion about the effect of the transfer, if any, on U.S. military strategic mobility. Now that a year has passed since the change in ownership, this seems to be a good time to consider possible alternatives to using the Panama Canal.

It must be recognized that the capabilities of the canal, as constructed, are limited because larger vessels cannot traverse it. This can constrain naval fleet movements, because aircraft carriers and some other naval vessels are too large for the canal. It also can hinder the shipping industry, where, for economic reasons, the worldwide trend is to construct increasingly larger tankers and container-carrying vessels. Because the majority of military supplies transported by sea will move on these larger vessels that the Panama Canal no longer can accommodate, an improved method of interocean transport that does not depend on the canal should be developed.

The most obvious solutions would appear to be either upgrading the Panama Canal's capabilities or constructing a new canal at another site that can handle larger vessels. There have been discussions about three potential alternative canal routes, in Colombia, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The Colombian and Mexican routes would allow for the construction of a sea-level canal, while the Nicaraguan route, like the Panama Canal, would require a lock system. A sea-level canal is obviously the most desirable alternative since it would eliminate the need for locks and their associated natural resource and construction costs. (As an example of the natural resource costs of a non-sea-level canal with locks, each ship crossing the Panama Canal requires 52 million gallons of fresh water to pass through the canal's locks.)

While an alternative canal could be constructed to accommodate large modern ships, it could prove to be only a temporary fix since ship sizes might continue to increase. The cost of either upgrading the Panama Canal or constructing a new canal also could prove prohibitive. In addition, any new canal would be subject to the same vulnerabilities as the current one. Because it would be located in non-U.S. territory, a new or upgraded canal would be subject to volatile local political disruptions and would be a relatively easy target for sabotage or aerial attack.

For these reasons, it is desirable to develop, insofar as possible, a transoceanic transport capability that is located entirely within the continental United States (CONUS). To transport petroleum and other liquid products, there are existing pipelines within CONUS that span the continent. However, their capacity to support wartime transcontinental transport requirements is uncertain. Pipeline capabilities should be studied in future strategic planning to determine what additional pipeline construction, if any, might be required to attain the necessary capacity.

It also would be prudent to develop outside CONUS (OCONUS) pipeline capabilities at other locations, where transcontinental distances would be less daunting. Potential OCONUS pipeline locations could include Costa Rica, Guatemala, and the Chiapas-Tabasco region of Mexico. These would be in addition to the existing Trans-Panama pipeline located outside the old Canal Zone near the Costa Rican border. While OCONUS pipelines would be more vulnerable to operational disruptions than those in CONUS, the redundant pipeline capability they would offer is highly desirable. It can be assumed that at least a part of the OCONUS capability would continue to be available to the United States during a contingency.

The S.S. Ancon was the first vessel to transit the newly completed Panama Canal in August 1914. (Photo courtesy of Panama Canal Authority.)

The S.S. Ancon was the first vessel to transit the newly completed Panama Canal in August 1914. (Photo courtesy of Panama Canal Authority.)


A modern containership enters one of the canal's locks. Note the tight fit compared to the Ancon 87 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Panama Canal Authoity.)

A modern containership enters one of the canal's locks. Note the tight fit compared to the Ancon 87 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Panama Canal Authoity.)

However, pipelines, in any location, will not support the transoceanic movement of dry cargo. The best strategic alternative to the Panama Canal is a land transcontinental transport capability totally within CONUS. The elements of this capability already exist, in an underdeveloped manner, within the CONUS railroad system. This system is commonly referred to as the "land bridge."

The land bridge supports the movement of cargo containers that satisfy International Organization for Standardization (ISO) criteria from vessels in one ocean to vessels in another ocean using overland transport by rail, normally on specially designed railcars. (Standard container sizes are 8 feet wide and 8 feet high, with lengths in 20-foot increments. Lengths of 20 feet and 40 feet are the norm.) This ocean-to-ocean traffic is referred to as the full, or "maxi," land bridge. Variations of this concept (referred to as "mini" or "micro" land bridges) are the movement of cargo by rail from one water port for loading aboard a vessel at another water port (mini bridge), or the movement of cargo between an inland point and a water port (micro bridge).

The concept of a land bridge is not new. The current Hutchison Whampoa operation in Panama is, in effect, a land bridge. (Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. is a giant Hong Kong-based shipping company. Panama's contract with Hutchison Whampoa does not involve the company in canal operations. The contract calls for the company to unload cargo from vessels too large to traverse the canal, forward the cargo across the isthmus by land transport, and reload the cargo on vessels on the opposite coast of the isthmus.) Land-bridge operations exist in all industrialized countries, including the United States. However, neither the concept nor the operations have been fully developed. The CONUS land bridge has been used for many years to transport containers moving from the Orient to Europe and vice versa. For example, in the early 1980's, American President Lines (APL), an ocean carrier, entered into long-term contracts with various U.S. railroads. These contracts provided for the railroads to accept APL containers, in 20-foot equivalent units, from APL vessels at Pacific ports and transport the containers in special cars to Atlantic ports for reloading on vessels bound for Europe. APL found that this method of transport saved approximately 2 weeks over the all-water route through the Panama Canal. Similarly, a study by Boeing concluded that moving a 10,000-pound shipment with a density of 10 pounds per cubic foot from Kobe, Japan, to Rotterdam, The Netherlands, via the Seattle-to-New York land bridge would decrease transit time by 9 days compared to shipping through the Panama Canal.

When compared to all-water routes, land-bridge traffic is fuel efficient, lowers environmental pollution, reduces traffic congestion, and shortens transit times (although currently the cost may be a bit higher). Since virtually all dry cargo shipments entering ocean traffic now move in ISO containers, it is clear that land-bridge traffic is here to stay.

Containers can be loaded on railroad flatcars, but most railroads, for economic reasons, are turning to specially designed "double-stacked" trains of permanently coupled cars. Double-stacked container transcontinental train routes are increasing dramatically. This alternative to the Panama Canal can be developed further to better support military logistics requirements in both peace and war. While the CONUS land bridge (as part of the existing transcontinental rail network) was used to some extent during Operation Desert Storm, its full capabilities were not exploited. As it stands, the land bridge can handle both commercial and military traffic, but not in a manner that would satisfy priority military requirements in a logistics-limited "just in time" inventory environment.

What is needed are specific procedures and firm agreements with rail carriers. The land bridge, to be effective in a military emergency, must have the capability of dedicating a transcontinental track route to military movements. This would not preclude the use of transcontinental tracks for commercial traffic during non-emergency periods. The military, for their part, must develop a fleet of container-capable railcars that can be added to the land-bridge system when and where required. This fleet can be composed of leased commercial cars, military-owned cars, or, when practical, an entire double-stack container train.

Land-bridge transit times probably can be reduced by 50 percent or more if intermediate stops can be minimized and train schedules rigidly followed. Achieving this reduction will require effective coordination among military elements, participating railroads, and entry and exit seaports. Inland CONUS points of entry where container traffic can best interface with the land bridge must be identified. These points of entry must be able to accommodate the positioning of heavy equipment designed to rapidly load and unload full containers weighing up to 20 tons from railcars and motor vehicles. They also must have adequate space for stacking and holding full containers awaiting transport and spur tracks for holding container railcars awaiting locomotive power. Maximum train-and-track capacities must be established, and track and equipment maintenance requirements must be scheduled. Logistics planners must consider land-bridge traffic requirements in war and contingency plans. These improvements in land-bridge military usage can be achieved at relatively low costs, especially when compared with the cost of upgrading the Panama Canal or constructing an alternative canal.

In adopting the land bridge as an alternative to the Panama Canal, we will eliminate the vulnerabilities that are so evident in relying on the canal as a logistics avenue. The track and equipment of the land bridge are located entirely within CONUS, so there will be no threat from local non-U.S. populations. If tracks or equipment are damaged or destroyed by misadventure or sabotage, other tracks and equipment are readily available. The efficient use of the land bridge will reduce transit times significantly compared to those encountered by traffic through the Panama Canal. Finally, use of the land bridge in times of military emergency will result in less interference with normal commercial traffic on CONUS roadways and Panama Canal sea routes. ALOG

Darlene F. DeAngelo is on the faculty of the Army War College in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and business from the University of Maryland, a master's certificate in global business management from George Washington University, and master's degrees in educational sociology from Wayne State University in Michigan and in national security strategy and strategic studies from the Naval War College.