A year and a half behind schedule, the US$5.25 billion expansion is expected to double the canal’s capacity when it opens on 26 June.
The hopes are that it will help to develop new markets such as liquid natural gas shipments and shave maritime costs by some US$8 billion a year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The original completion date was October 2014 and was scheduled to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the opening of the canal. However, it has been delayed due to technical problems with the construction of the locks, labour disputes and a recent lock wall collapse.
The expansion includes two new sets of lock complexes, one along the Pacific coast on the outskirts of Panama City and another on the northern coast at the city of Colon. The locks are 54.8m wide and 426m long, big enough to accommodate the New Panamax-class vessels that are seen as the future of global shipping. Ships up to 48.7m wide with a draft of about 15.2m can now fit in the locks. New Panamaxes are 365m long with a capacity of between 13,000-14,000TEUs, about 2.5 to 3 times as many as those that currently can use the locks.
One of the main changes in the world of shipping will be a shift in cargo from the Suez and U.S. West Coast ports. According to Drewry Maritime Research, the shift in traffic will be ‘incremental and in line with demand growth’.
However, both canals face a problem that on routes from Europe and North America to Asia, as many as 115 ships since October 2015 have opted to bypass the Suez and Panama canals on their return trip home. Instead, they have taken the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, according to Sea Intel Maritime Analysis (SeaIntel), which tracks the activities of container ships.
Shipping lines pay between US$300,000 and US$1 million per vessel to pass through the Suez Canal and up to US$300,000 for passage through the Panama Canal. Taken on an annual basis, SeaIntel projected that shipping companies could save as much as US$20 million annually per service on the return trip. A service is a weekly route provided by a shipping company that makes regular stops and includes from nine to 12 ships.