The Little Engine that Could

The little engine that could was huffing and puffing, but this little train had no major hills to climb. Instead, it had to travel from one ocean to another, just a distance of 47.6 miles, making it the world’s first transcontinental railroad.  And it has been making this trip, back and forth, for 166 years! This could only happen in Panamá, where two oceans are so close to each other that they can be seen from a high vantage point.

The Panamá Railroad began chugging along in 1855, hauling freight across the narrow isthmus, emptying a cargo ship on one side and taking the contents to another ship on the other side. This allowed ships to avoid having to go around Cape Horn, a rocky and dangerous passage at the bottom of South America. It also cut the shipping time by numerous days and 12,500 miles.

The question arose, “Why load and reload these ships if there could be a way to let the ship cross the isthmus?” Thus was born the Panamá Canal in 1904. However, this little engine did not puff its last; it discovered a different usefulness. The train became the means to haul away all the dirt dug up to create the Canal. New rails were laid off to the side in order to create an enlarged waterway. That cost 9 million dollars. Now the train had a new life.

Today, that little train is not so little, but it is still running, still hauling goods with the addition of passengers, making it the world’s longest continuously operating railroad. The only competitor for this honor is the Strasburg Railroad, founded in 1832, still a steam train, operating as a special events only railroad, puffing  through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. There were older trains in the US and England, but they are no longer running.


Many Panamanians don’t know much about their short-distance railroad, as there is no other railroad in the country. Now operating as the Panamá Canal Railway Company, the train takes about an hour going between oceans and costs $25.00 to ride. The only regular riders are the workers going from Panamá City to Colon who work at the International Free Trade Zone. The other riders are tourists who prefer the train ride to the $2.00 bus ride.

This little train, which grew to be a big train, has served the entire world, transporting the goods which line the shelves of every country. Panamá can be proud of the role its train has played for the last century and a half.


Fact: Panamá has the second largest duty-free zone in the world after Hong Kong
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Author: Warren R. Johnson

I am a US citizen travelling in Europe. I have retired from two long-lasting careers: an ordained minister with an exclusive ministry in sacred music (organist-choirmaster), and a book dealer (2 stores and Internet selling). Another shorter career was as a data manager in medical research. Today, I am pursuing a writing career.

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