El Metro de Panama: The first of its kind in Central America

The city of Panama may only have around 1.2 million inhabitants, but this doesn’t stop it from being one of the most lively cities in Latin America. The city expanded rapidly in the 20th century thanks to its prominent position on the Panama Canal and is now home to over a third of its country’s population.


Inevitably, this rapid shift towards urbanization brought infrastructure challenges, leading to inner city congestion, longer traffic jams and haphazard sprawling development: all of the signs we’ve come to expect from quickly growing cities. As a result, in 2009, the country’s Martinelli government put public transport at the top of its agenda.


We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Roberto Roy, President of Metro de Panama, about how the project moved beyond a concept to being a reality, the impact it will have on the lives of the city’s 1.2 million inhabitants, and how, like almost all the most successful transport projects, the total impact on the city is more than the sum of its parts.


A Journey beginning in 2009

Mr. Robert Roy notes: “We started in 2009 as the Metro Secretariat, which was the entity created to take charge of the development and implementation of the metro system; a process that was very challenging, especially because it was to be the first metro built in Central America.”


Panama City’s crowded inner made planning for a dual bus and metro system even more of a challenge. As Mr. Roy explains: “Back in 2009 were the hectic early days of 12 hour days of planning. We put together the right team and specs, listed the prequalified contractors for Line one, and finally the winning bidder for construction; which began in  March 2011.”


The line of the Panama City Metro, running from north to south through the city’s heart, is its busiest area. The city’s main avenues already had little or no space for works, necessitating the need for an underground component - resulting in a more complex and costly project - but ultimately one that worked much better for the city.


As Mr. Roy explains, literally every aspect of the project was planned down to the last detail - even the method of tunneling: “We decided on a tunneling solution that called for two TBMs of the EPB type (Earth Pressure Balance) both for safety and environmental reasons.  This also allowed us to work without disturbing people on the surface.”


Project Scope and Socioeconomic Impact

To say that the metro has changed the fabric of the city would be an understatement. Mr. Roy says: “Today it has an average daily demand of about 260,000 passengers, the record being 295,000.  It seems that every day more and more people want to use the Metro. Its construction represented a US$2bn  investment with a further 2.5km phase at the planning stage.”


As line 1 continues to expand, line 2 is well underway. Mr. Roy estimates that it is around 55% complete at the time of writing, and should finish faster than line 1 given that it is completely overground. It is 21km in length, will cost US$2bn to construct and connects with Line 1 in the east of the city and lays the groundwork for Line 2A, a future connection to line 1, and one to a future line 5, which will begin in April 2019.


Right now, line 3 is nearing the construction phase. Mr. Roy says: “Construction of Line 3 hasn’t started as of this date, nonetheless, Project Managers have advanced in all the designs and are now working on the tender documents. This line will extend from the City of Panama all the way to the western towns and will cross the Panama Canal at a newly constructed bridge.” 634


Line 3 is also interesting for another reason: it offers a different transportation solution, in that it will be a monorail. It will have a longitude of 26km, 14 stations and a capacity of 30,000 p/h/s. Construction start is expected by the end of 2018. It’s easy to see how the nexus of these lines makes Mr. Roy state: “Metro de Panama is more than a huge asset to our city and economy: it offers a quality of life and more time for families to be together.”


Continuing Panama’s mix of Local and International

Lines 1 and 2 currently each employ about 4,000 people, most of the locals. In addition, all concrete construction, including stations, piles, columns and beams were manufactured with local components, including locally-produced high quality cement and stone. The local component also extends to service and maintenance contracts.

The list of local firms is a who’s who of the best companies that Panama has to offer. These include Grupo Argos, Luis Berger, Grupo Flotec S.A., TKL Import Export S.A., Cardoze and Lindo S.A., and FCC Constuccion de Centroamerica, S.A., among others.


However, nobody could ever accuse Panama - home to one of the world’s largest trade routes - of not being outward looking. International construction firms were prominent in the development of lines 1 and 2, among them Odebrecht of Brazil and FCC of Spain, who were the general contractors chosen by tender.


There has also considerable cooperation and knowledge transfer from Metro de Barcelona, while Alstom - a world leader in rail transport - is the train and signaling control (CBTC) supplier, as well as the maintenance contractor. Other French firms involved were Thales, responsible for communications, and TCP Rail, focusing on the rail systems.


A project on the move

It will come as little surprise to anyone having read the above that Metro de Panama has an 85% acceptance rate among inhabitants of its city. Indeed, the expression, “Metrocultura” has entered the local lexicon. Its meaning according to Mr. Roy is “good manners, cleanliness and developing a sense of property in the citizens.”


However, nobody is sitting on their laurels. Lines 2 and 3 will extend the breadth of the long city of Greater Panama, a city that is basically forced to grow linearly. Extra lines will also follow, bringing a world-class transportation network to a city that not long ago could barely have claimed to possess one fit for purpose.


In 2019, the city of Panama will celebrate 500 years since it was founded. In that period, the country has its fair share of turbulent times, but perhaps there is no better indication of the progress it is making than Metro de Panama.