Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/8/2016 (2154 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Manitoba’s northern transportation policy can be summed up as a couple of decades of unfunded promises and funded illusions. The residents of the North have been let down by wasteful, short-sighted political strategies, rather than the embrace of economic realities.
Among the unfunded NDP promises are the creation of a road to Nunavut and the east side road network.
Millions of dollars have been spent engineering road systems that are uneconomic to build or operate. When the federal government refused to bite on these billion-dollar boondoggles, the provincial government decided to strike out alone to build 872 kilometres of gravel roads east of Lake Winnipeg. This $3-billion project would take 30 years to complete at current funding levels and would serve only half of the remote communities. A road to Nunavut would likely cost as much or more, but it exists only in the dreams of the Doer-Selinger era and their election campaign literature.
The Hudson Bay Railway (HBR) and Port of Churchill have been the subject of deluded visions of grandeur. Is the railway the beginning of a polar bridge to Russia, the northern terminus of the mid-continent NAFTA Corridor or the rusting remains of 19th-century, railway-building enthusiasm?
Traffic density is key to the economics of railways. With no return freight, and only fluctuating, seasonal volumes of grain, CN Rail recognized this reality years before it got out. The HBR does not earn enough revenue to operate even a fully depreciated railway. The melting permafrost due to climate change just puts the final nail in the railway’s coffin.
What are the options? The Port of Churchill has strategic military, cultural, and economic significance. It will not be abandoned, any more than the other 125 remote communities that dot the province’s North.
With the exception of farmers in the northeastern Prairies, no one in the agricultural industry is interested in sustaining the Churchill route. Without the old Canadian Wheat Board to prop up the port (with grain producers’ money) or the government to subsidize its use (with taxpayers’ money), the game is over.
Some remote communities along the HBR depend on the railway. It would be much less expensive to convert the rail bed to a gravel road to serve these communities than to sustain a railway for the minimal traffic it provides.
A gravel road already exists between Thompson and Gillam. It has never been paved or extended to Churchill. A new 300-km-plus route west of the discontinuous permafrost area north of Gillam would be needed. These costs are unknown, but the economic benefits are worth considering.
Many seaports operate without rail access, and Churchill could do so, too. At 800 km, the northeastern-prairie grain catchment area is within competitive trucking distance. Trucks could provide daily service for resupply to Nunavut and the town of Churchill. Trucks could also bring back any freight that would now be carried by rail. Strategically, a road would enable faster and more reliable response for defence and emergency needs.
Manitoba is a "rubber-tire" tourist destination — people usually visit this province on their own, without benefit of a formal tour. An all-weather road would have a positive effect on Churchill’s tourism industry. The cost of flying to Churchill, or the long train journey, limits widespread interest. Lots of RVs, campers and tour buses drive to Alaska; Churchill is much closer and just as inviting. A paved road would bring even more tourists and extend Churchill’s tourist season.
An all-weather road is the answer for Churchill, but not for the other remote communities. Converting the 2,200 km of ice roads in Manitoba to gravel is no more likely to make economic sense than a road to Nunavut. Even if the province could build the 872-km network on the east side by 2040, it is unlikely ice roads will still be viable in the rest of the province.
I, personally, have encouraged investment in transport airship development to replace the ice roads. At the cost of about three bridges, Manitoba could have an airship to serve the entire province. The rest of the money now being poured into the muskeg on the east side could be then used to build a paved road connection to Churchill.
When I first came to Manitoba, I asked why the road had never been extended from Gillam to Churchill. The answer was building a road would kill the railway. Besides, as long as the railway provided service, the provincial treasury could avoid the infrastructure burden of a road.
Every crisis creates opportunities. The market is signaling the death of the HBR is nigh. Rather than keeping the railway on perpetual taxpayer life-support, it is time to consider an all-weather road. The economic development Churchill loses on grain handling could be a fraction of the stimulus a road would give to tourism, mining, and distribution services.
Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba.