Now that the good fight has succeeded in stopping the economy’s downward slide and we can see things getting better I have a chance to turn to some lighter subjects that should have a wider appeal.

I am captured by the blogs and comments by others talking about the joys of traveling by train. It made me think, isn’t writing about trains the way Paul Theroux got his start? There’s gold in them thar’ rails.

I have had my share of train travel and stories that go with these many trips. A quick scan of the arcane lore cluttering my mind and I came up with titles for a series about trains that should keep me busy, and hopefully appeal to our readers.

To whet your appetite, and get started, I thought I would take a quick look at one of the shortest, but most fascinating train trips in many ways - history, nature, engineering, politics, economics, conquest, culture, and more. I speak of the Panama Canal Railway that travels over and beside this modern wonder of the world. I had the chance to take several visitors on this marvelous trip while I was at our embassy in Panama.

From its founding as a Spanish outpost in the New World, Panama served as the link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The great Spanish gold fleet in fact had two fleets, one to bring the gold and silver from the Pacific ports to Panama and one to take the goodies across the Atlantic to Spain. The gold had to be carried by beast and man on foot from Panama City on the Pacific, to Colon on the Caribbean.

In the mid-19th Century a railway was built across the isthmus to facilitate the transport from one sea to the other. It was no small accomplishment, built at a cost of $8 million 1855 dollars and 5000 to 10,000 lives. It set the stage for the canal. In fact the canal was built by using the railway and it takes almost exactly the same route as the railway, thus the railway still runs right over and alongside the canal.

It is a great trip and it takes only an hour or so. Coming from Colon you almost immediately enter forests and then break out onto a long causeway across part of the canal. Then back to the forests until you come to a series of small villages that house those working on various parts of the canal. Finally you come to the booming city of Panama.

I would recommend that anyone taking a cruise through the Panama Canal disembark in Colon or Panama City and take the train to the other side. You will actually see more of the canal this way and have a better look at the flora and fauna of the canal zone.

Next on the list:

The Orient Express
The Hajaz Railway
The Copper Canyon Railway
The Rhine Railway
The Asmara-Massawa Trolly
The Shanghai Express
The Marrakech Express
And more

Leo Cecchini
June 2009