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Makes good sense sense from an international shipping viewpoint, but the concept is only about 150 years old, and yet no real "land bridge" is in place. A big infrastructure project with highway, railway (beefier than the present inadequate line), and pipeline, plus port expansion sounds awfully good - but I wonder how they will obtain the support of the local indigenous folks, and how they will protect the cargoes from criminal attacks. Until those questions are answered, I am betting the thing will remain a white elephant.

Cruisers know about the dread "T-peckers" (make the summer winds in Alto Boquete seem like gentle breezes), but that's a topic for another day.

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Moderator comment: An interesting topic about an old idea about Mexico competing with the Panama Canal in the international trade sector. What follows is an aged historical overview by the Los Angeles Times of the Mexican canal discussed in this topic.


Mexico Dreams of a Way to Rival Canal

Proposed super-train would offer alternative to Panama passage. Colombia and Nicaragua have similar hopes of building their own interoceanic routes.


IXTEPEC, Mexico — Gilberto Chontal, a 37-year railroad veteran, squints through the grimy window of a train huffing through Mexico's southern jungle. His eyes flicker over turn-of-the-century train stations, thatched-roof huts, peasants dozing in hammocks.

But what he sees is something else.

"Progress," murmurs the stocky ticket collector, envisioning the super-train that may be installed here, under a government plan to link Mexico's coasts in a corridor as efficient as the Panama Canal.

"We would have modern technology," Chontal says dreamily.

"Here, there's no industry. . . . There's nothing but death."

Since Spanish colonial days, Mexicans have dreamed of having a world-class passage between the oceans. Again and again, the dream has been thwarted--by wars, a lack of money and the success of the Panama Canal.

But now, the vision is coming back to life.

And Mexicans aren't the only ones dreaming. As world trade grows and the U.S. prepares to relinquish the Panama Canal--prompting worries about the waterway's future--countries throughout the region are reexamining their old dreams of creating interoceanic passages.

pixel.gifSome skeptics caution that the projects are about as realistic as the magical Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels beloved by Latin Americans. But freight carriers are keenly interested. And from Managua to Mexico, officials are busily planning for the day when their backwaters turn into trading centers.

"The idea that somehow you could wake up tomorrow and discover you're on the crossroads of the world, a new superhighway, is a wonderful dream," said John Ricklefs, a transportation consultant with the Frederick R. Harris firm in New York.

But unless the economics can be worked out, he warned, the projects could remain fixtures on a Latin American wish list, joining such long-held but elusive ambitions as a Central American Federation or a modern road through the Amazon.

Mexico has periodically considered a passage across its narrow isthmus of Tehuantepec since conquistador Hernan Cortes suggested one in 1525. But the latest proposal is as modern as a Mexico City traffic jam. The government of President Ernesto Zedillo has revived the idea as part of its program of privatizing railroads, ports and airports.

While the details are still hazy, the plan calls for a "land bridge"--an upgraded rail link between the ports of Salina Cruz, on the Pacific, and Coatzacoalcos, on the Gulf of Mexico. Ships could transfer their containers onto trains that would whisk them 180 miles to vessels on the opposite coast. The trip would be far quicker than the eight- to 10-hour passage through the Panama Canal. And some ships could further save time by not having to sail to the eastern end of Central America.

Lured by the interoceanic passage, officials say, companies would turn the poor isthmus into a hub for international manufacturing and commerce--sort of a cross between Tijuana and the Panama Canal.

"I call this the Mexico of the 21st century," declared Mauricio Valdes, head of the Mexican Senate's transportation commission. "The potential for development of the isthmus is enormous."

But Mexico isn't the only country to see such potential. Nearly a century after it lost out to Panama on hosting a giant regional waterway, Nicaragua is studying a $1.5-billion "dry canal" similar to Mexico's scheme, to be completely financed by foreign investors. The plan features a coast-to-coast train system linking two new ports.

"Many other countries in the region are talking about mimicking our idea," said Don Bosco, a New York lawyer who is spearheading the Nicaraguan project.

"We're doing it. That's the difference."

His consortium has signed up Parsons Brinckerhoff International, a New York-based engineering firm, to do feasibility studies. When the studies are finished, Bosco's firm will seek loans or international equity partners. Design and construction could begin in about a year, he said.

Rafael Urbina, a senior Nicaraguan transportation official, said the canal is a distinct possibility--as long as investors could be found.

"The country is really hopeful," he said. "Since there are no jobs, the public is supporting us in trying to start this project."

Meanwhile, Colombia also is studying a channel between the oceans, probably linking together rivers in its northwest.

President Ernesto Samper vowed a year ago to move ahead with the idea. However, asked recently when construction might begin, a government official squirmed.

"We've been talking about it for nearly 30 years," he admitted. "The engineering would be very complicated."

Even the most ardent supporters of the projects admit that none would supplant the Panama Canal. With 198 million metric tons of cargo moving through that waterway last year--providing $486 million in tolls--the canal dwarfs the other proposed corridors.



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