An Airship-Cargo Service Would Transform the Economy of the North

An Airship-Cargo Service Would Transform the Economy of the North

An Airship-Cargo Service Would Transform the Economy of the North

Dr. Barry E. Prentice, June 20th, 2011.

The “bold idea” Diane Gray outlines to use the CentrePort model for the development of Churchill deserves analysis. Most observers of Northern transportation would agree the Port of Churchill has seldom lived up to either expectations or economic potential. Consequently, an assessment of this Arctic Gateway vision is important.

The location circumstances of CentrePort and Churchill are different.

Winnipeg is a well-developed transportation centre with major highways, international air carriers, three transcontinental railways, and now an inland port to serve a local market of over 1,000,000.

Churchill operates as a remote, seasonal port with limited short-line rail service, no all-weather road connections and no national air carriers, to serve a local population of 1,000.

The idea that a successful economic development model, designed for a busy agricultural centre, can be transplanted successfully to the thinner soils at Churchill carries some strong assumptions. The opportunity to expand trade with the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut is real. The region is rich in mineral deposits and mining developments are increasing the demand for freight.

Shippers in Winnipeg complain that Manitoba is losing traffic on the Churchill route to ships that are sailing out of Montreal. A more efficient route through Churchill to Kivalliq might change relative prices and drive trade back to Manitoba.

The expansion of trade through Churchill via an Arctic Bridge to Russia and China is a harder sell. Unless climate change or icebreakers extend the shipping season beyond four months, Churchill will always have a cost and convenience disadvantage relative to ports that are more southerly. If the climate changes sufficiently to permit year-round sailing to Churchill, it could also threaten the railway with rising ocean levels and melting permafrost.

Gray describes the Churchill route as “an affordable transportation option for agricultural producers shipping overseas.” Then in the next breath, she bemoans the loss of the CWB monopoly because they are the only ones using this route. If Churchill is the superior route, a change in the CWB should not affect grain traffic, unless of course, CWB shipments through Churchill now occur for other reasons.

The economic challenges of northern transportation are significant. If current solutions were working, no reason would exist to promote change. As the years of the current government roll along, their Northern legacy is quite apparent. Things are clearly worse than they used to be. The potential of Churchill’s location as a deep-water Arctic seaport cannot be unlocked by the status quo.

We all want Churchill to grow and to alleviate the dire living conditions of the Anishinabe in our remote communities. Gray advocates a “community-wide effort with everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Talking up problems is not the same as identifying solutions. As a longtime influential bureaucrat in the provincial government, she must have ideas to share on the ultimate destination and the means to get there. The obvious range of options includes two expensive, conventional solutions and one low-cost, but untested, solution. The first two options are to build a new paved highway to Churchill and to upgrade the rail line to 50 kilometres per hour. As an order of cost magnitude, multiply the number of kilometres by $2 million or $3 million per kilometre. The cost of road or rail infrastructure in the North quickly reaches into the billions of dollars that the province does not have and the federal government has shown no interest in providing.

The third option is transport airships. Airships leave a minimal environmental footprint because they are infrastructure-free. For the cost of a few highway bridges, an airship-cargo service could be initiated that would transform the economy of the North. Transport airships could complement existing surface infrastructure. Conventional rail and sea transport to Churchill could be combined with transport airships to deliver freight to the mining operations in Kivalliq. Subsequently, these airships could return to Churchill with mineral concentrates for transshipment to distant markets. Of course, transport airships could carry goods directly from CentrePort to Churchill. Most perishable and time-sensitive cargo would undoubtedly move this way, or via Thompson.

The new airships the U.S. military has ordered will be in flight trials before the 2011 Grey Cup. These are the largest airships built since the giant Zeppelins of the 1930s. The first civilian transport airship in the 10 to 50 tonne lift range will be in operation two to three years later.

The North has had quite enough false promises and empty rhetoric on economic development. It is time the Manitoba government embraced a transportation technology that changes the game for the North. I look forward to the day that a giant airship hangar becomes the iconic symbol of progress at the heart of CentrePort Canada.

Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba.

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