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Panama Canal Railway’s passenger train

By Bob Johnston | June 30, 2006

From sea to shining sea in a dome car

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Panama Canal Railway
Panama Canal Railway
Scenic highlight of a ride on the Panama Canal Railway is the Montelino Causeway across Gatun Lake.
Bob Johnston
The Panama Canal Railway Company is like a steel chameleon. It runs a successful passenger operation serving different types of travelers. Then, with the issuance of a simple track warrant, the railroad changes in an instant to a burgeoning intermodal carrier, whose double-stack freight trains race between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The story of the rebirth and transformation of Panama’s railway is compelling – and TRAINS Magazine takes you there to explore both the passenger and freight operations in the September 2002 issue – available on newsstands now.

As for PCRC’s gleaming 6-car passenger train, it too, is a chameleon. During the day, it’s a rollicking party on wheels, ferrying up to 300 cruise ship passengers from the Atlantic Coast port of Colon to the city of Balboa on the Pacific, skirting the north bank of the world-famous Panama Canal for part of its 47-mile journey.

But at dawn and dusk, the same plush equipment becomes a dependable, workaday commuter train whose operation was eagerly awaited by citizens long before the train ever turned a wheel.

The engines and coaches came from the United States: F40s for motive power, and stainless steel Clocker coaches, all leased from Amtrak and decorated in a bright yellow, red, and dark green paint scheme that hearkens to the passenger scheme of the Kansas City Southern Railway. It’s not a coincidence – KCS owns 25% of the Panama Canal Railway.

The passenger train’s jewel in the crown is a former Southern Pacific lounge car that itself underwent a transformation into a full-length dome car.

Southern Pacific 3603 had begun life at carbuilder Pullman Standard’s Chicago plant in 1938 as a single-level tavern lounge car. First used on the steam-powered, streamlined Los Angeles-San Francisco Coast Daylight, the car was among those outfitted with a Budd-built full-length dome at the railroad’s Roseville Shops in 1955 and eventually found its way onto the Shasta Daylight and City of San Francisco before Amtrak became beguiled with its charms.

But with the arrival of Superliners, the unique feature car didn’t make the cut to head-end power conversion in the early 1980s and was turned out to pasture, literally.

The dome car languished as an off-road ice cream parlor just outside of Jacksonville, Fla., until Panama Canal Railway’s president, Dave Starling, happened to notice it on a business trip. The car was purchased in August, 2000, for $40,000 and moved to New Orleans, where KCS had a shop it leased out for the restoration of PCRC’s rolling stock.

Passenger car transformation specialist (and Amtrak-certified inspector) Pete Messina’s rebuild program was in full swing by the time the dome arrived. After PCRC’s five Clocker coaches were outfitted with mahogany and cherry interior paneling, booth seating, small galleys, and end-of-car open-air observation decks similar to those that have proven so popular on dome cars built for Alaskan and Rocky Mountaineer cruise trains, Messina’s shop forces worked their magic on the 64 year-old dome car.

In addition to completely rehabilitated mechanical systems, cherry wood paneling, new seating, and a stunning bar, Messina doubled the dome car’s air conditioning capacity and installed new dome glass and de-humidifying heaters to combat foggy windows in the humid climate.

The final classy touches were added by Panama City artist Matt Tomlin, who painted special interior murals of native wildlife and scenes of the colorful train next to Gatun Lake.

The final rehab tab: $760,000. But anyone who rides in the lounge end of this tall-ceilinged car with the colorful past would swear they are rolling through the jungle in a cathedral.

Visiting Panama

AIR: Non-stop jets fly to Panama City from Miami, Orlando, Houston, Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles; advance purchase round-trip fares are in the $500 range connecting through Miami

CRUISES: Celebrity and Carnival currently have 8 to 14-day Caribbean cruises that offer shore excursions on the railway from Colon. (A round trip costs about $35.) Princess Cruises even honored the Panarail Tourism Company train excursions with its “cruise event of the season” award. Other cruise lines such as Princess, Holland America, and Cunard offer trips from their occasional calls at both the Atlantic and Pacific ports.

LODGING: Downtown Panama City offers a range of hotels in many price ranges. Other hotels are located near the Amador causeway (along the Canal) a few miles from PCRC’s Balboa station. Luxury jungle resorts, such as the one near the railroad’s curving Chagres River bridge at Gamboa, are beginning to develop in the interior.

MOBILITY: An alternative to car rental is hiring a knowledgeable driver. Alfredo Mendoza at (507) 613-9344 is often used by the railroad and can recommend others if he is busy.

A knowledgeable travel agent can make all the arrangements.

Learn more about the passenger and freight operations on the Panama Canal Railway in the September 2002 issue of TRAINS Magazine.

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