If you have been driving in Panama City lately, you already know the extreme levels of patience you need to get to your destination. It’s almost impossible to move within the city. The “tranques” (traffic jams) are everywhere during the day. The blowing of the horns, the harassments of the bus and taxi drivers, and the heat of the day can drive you absolutely crazy.
This transportation chaos wasn’t always like this. Panama was one of the few countries in Latin America which enjoyed a well organized transportation system based on electric trams or streetcars.
The first street railway system was inaugurated on October 1, 1893 by the British company United Electric Tramways Co. It was one of the first tramway electric systems in the continent together with Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. The British company opened the system with six streetcars; two closed and four open with the capacity to seat comfortably 25 passengers each.
This system lasted approximately nine years mainly because of the failure of the French attempt to build a canal across the isthmus, which depressed the local economy, and the the War of the One Thousand Days.
The second street railway system was built by the American company, Panama Tramway Co. headquartered in New Jersey. On August 1, 1913 it opened its doors at Plaza Santa Ana with twenty-two brand new 4-wheel closed cars, with controls and door arranged for Panama’s left hand traffic inherited by the initial British streetcar transportation system. These units were conventional electric streetcars with General Electric motors and trolley poles.
The vehicles on both of the city’s streetcar systems drew electric power from overhead wires. As far as we know, Panama City never had passenger trams powered by animals, steam, batteries, or fossil fuels (gasoline or light diesel).
This is what Alonso Roy wrote about the golden days of the electric streetcars in Panama:
“Since its opening on August 1, 1913 , the electric tram became an integral part of life in Panama City. They definitely fulfilled a very important mission to provide solutions to address the growing problems of transportation in a city that was beginning to feel important with the personality of a big city.
The routes covered (Parque Catedral, Bella Vista, La Sabana, and Balboa, with subsequent extensions to the Tivoli Hotel and la Normal de Institutoras), were well known by all its users who were perfectly happy and very rarely externalized protests or complaints about the fine service that was offered to them.
The trams were ample, very clean, spacious and projected a sense of security by looking at the huge mass of iron and wood, which displaced gracefully over the rails, imprinting a very urban aspect to its journey, with the tinkling of the bells announcing its presence, which agitated with great strength an expeditious right of way in the traffic or emerged like a scream of alert to the people or automobiles nearby.”
The 1940 edition of the Passenger Transport Journal Directory & Year Book, published in London, reported twenty streetcars, and 11.2 miles of track. Some lines were closed and others were extended, but all suffered competition from jitneys and automobiles.
The Panama government decided to cancel the operation of the electric streetcars saying it was too noisy, the streets were too narrow, automobile population had increased, and traffic problems had grown among others. Panama’s last streetcar ran until midnight Saturday, May 31, 1941.
World War II was about to start and our traffic nightmares were just starting to germinate. The era of the electric streetcars in Panama had ended.
There is not a trace of the electric streetcars left, except the rails. In an effort to enhance the beauty of the Old Quarters of Panama City (Casco Viejo), government authorities decided to remove the asphalt to reveal the red bricks below. When this was done, the old rails came out embedded in the centenarian red bricks. It brought back pleasant memories of an old Panama that was lost and found again.
On a recent trip to Casco Viejo and Plaza Santa Ana, I took pictures of the old streetcar rails. They looked beautiful. This is what I saw through the lens of my Birthday camera. Here we go.
Now, when you are in the middle of a “tranque”, remember that we once had the best transportation system in Latin America and we blew it. But I guess, it’s no use crying over spilled milk. I hope our next President will look back and learn from History. Fingers crossed. Good Day.
The tramways of Panama City, Colombia – Panama by Allen Morrison
R.I.P. Para el Tranvía Eléctrico by Alonso Roy