Beez Neez
Skipper and First Mate Millard (Big Bear and Pepe)
Mon 4 Feb 2013 23:57

The Mules That Work on The Panama Canal




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Chaps lined up ready for action

These busy little chaps just had to get their own blog, Bear and I were both fascinated watching them get about their work. From the outset, it was considered an important safety feature that ships were guided though the lock chambers by electric locomotives, known as mulas - mules, named after the animals traditionally used to pull barges on the lock walls. These mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the rather narrow locks (narrow relative to modern-day ships). Forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship's engines and not the mules'.



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Ships approaching the locks, first pull up to the guide wall which is an extension of the centre wall of the locks. There she attached to the mules on the wall before proceeding into the lock. As she moves forward, additional lines are taken to mules on the other wall. With the biggest chums, there are two mules on each side at the bow, and two each side at the stern, these eight mules allow for precise control of the ship.



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The mules themselves run on rack tracks with broad five feet gauge, to which they are geared. Traction is by electric power, supplied through a third rail that is laid below surface level on the landside. Each mule has a powerful winch, operated by the driver; these are used to take two cables in or pay them out, to keep the ship centred in the lock while moving it from chamber to chamber. With as little as two feet of space on each side of a ship, considerable skill is required on the part of the operators.



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A new generation of locomotives was incorporated into the Panama Canal and they enhance Canal services for the benefit of world trade. Each locomotive weighs fifty tons, operates with two, two hundred and ninety horsepower traction units and has a towing capacity of 311.8 kilonewtons at 4.8 kilometers per hour, and of 178.2 kilonewtons at 8 kilometers per hour. They can move the same load at 3.2 and 4.8 kilometers per hour, respectively. Their maximum return speed is 16 kilometers per hour. They are lighter, stronger and faster than the previously used models. Reduction in lockage time is among the benefits of their new design.



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The original locomotives used in the Canal were built by General Electric. They weighed forty three metric tons and could pull 111.07 kilonewtons at a towing speed of up to 3.2 kilometers per hour. Their return speed was 8 kilometers maximum. As of 1964, they have been replaced with Mitsubishi locomotives that weigh fifty five tons and tow up to 311 kilonewtons at their maximum towing speed of 4.8 kilometers per hour. They use two windlasses, and have a return speed of 14.4 kilometers.

In 1997, the Mitsubishi Corporation was awarded the contract for the manufacture of new locomotives. The first eight prototypes were delivered in August 1999, at a cost of $2.3 million each. After a 6-month test period, they began operating at Miraflores Locks.



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The second group arrived in August 2001, at a cost of $1.9 million per unit. Sixteen of the twenty six locomotives are in operation at Miraflores Locks. The other ten (which arrived in March 2002) are in the Miraflores fleet. The fleet has now increased to one hundred units.

The size of the locomotive fleet has grown over the years in order to cope with the increase in number and size of the vessels transiting the Canal. The original fleet was forty, rose to eighty two and more were needed. Most of the ships transiting the locks used to only require the assistance of four locomotives.



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The ACP (Panama Canal Authority) has also replaced more than 16 kilometers of existing tow track with a new design built to withstand current and future Canal traffic demands. This new track lowers maintenance costs, improves service and enables the locomotives to assist transiting vessels maintain position within the locks chambers. The project was completed in September 2007. Smaller vessels, such as small tour boats and private yachts, are taken as handline transits, where mooring lines to the lock walls are handled manually by line handlers on the ship.



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