Over 960 million cubic meters of cargo passed through the canal in 2015, a new record and an amount that Francisco Miguez of the ACP calls “the maximum we could do in the existing locks”. The expansion increases capacity to 1.7 billion cubic meters. The biggest container ships that could use the old canal, known as Panamaxes, can carry around 5,000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units, or a standard shipping container). Neo-Panamaxes that will squeeze through the new locks can carry around 13,000 TEUs. The world’s largest ships have space for nearly 20,000 TEUs, the majority of the global fleet will now fit through the canal.
The expansion will not only fill the coffers of the ACP and the Panamanian government. It will also change how freight moves around the world. Traffic could divert from the Suez Canal. Larger vessels, which currently ply that route between Asia and America’s east coast, now have the option of going through Panama. America’s east-coast ports should get busier. In the past, many containers heading from Asia to the eastern seaboard would arrive at west-coast ports, such as Los Angeles and Long Beach
Vessels carrying liquefied natural gas from America’s shale beds will be able to pass through the locks for the first time, heading to Asia. They are expected to account for 20% of cargo by volume by 2020.
East-coast ports are preparing for the windfall, says Mika Vehvilainen of Cargotec, a maker of cargo-handling equipment. Ports in Baltimore, Charleston, Miami, New York and Savannah are updating facilities to accommodate the Neo-Panamaxes. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey plans to spend $2.7 billion on enlarging its terminals and shipping lanes, and a further $1.3 billion to raise a bridge by 20 metres.
Shipping lines’ costs will also fall, in part through economies of scale but also because ports are automating facilities at the same time as preparing them for Neo-Panamaxes