The Transportation Problem
Transportation challenges in remote northern areas discourage investment in resource industries, limit employment prospects and increase the cost of living. In southerly latitudes, the introduction of bulk transportation has underpinned the economic and social development of frontier regions. However, northern regions remain underdeveloped and are constrained by the following problems:
- Remote & Isolated: Transportation and logistics tend to be very expensive due to the long distances involved and the need to build winter roads or airports.
- Extreme Environment: Transportation options are often limited due to harsh weather conditions and the extreme climate.
- Changing Climate: The transportation options that are available are becoming increasingly vulnerable and there is concern about the sustainability of the present transportation options such as the use of ice-roads.
As a result of these problems, northern communities suffer from:
- Economic Under-development: Unemployment is unusually high and median incomes in most communities are well below the national average.
- Forgone Opportunities: Development of northern resources frequently does not occur due to these high costs and transportation difficulties.
- High Inventory Carrying Costs: Because resupply is infrequent and sometimes unreliable, large inventories of fuel and food must be stored, maintained and financed for unusually long periods of time.
Land area north of the all weather roads and rail lines encompasses approximately 6.4 million square km. There are three primary modes of transportation that are presently used but there are problems with each of them:
- Air: The North is served best by air transport but tends to be very expensive and requires a large investment in permanent infrastructure through the construction of airports and runways.
- Sea lifts: At present, many remote northern communities depend on annual sealift (barges.) There are only 2-3 deliveries per year and sailing dates are sometimes missed.
- Ice Roads: Temporary winter roads built over frozen lakes and cleared bush are the lifeline for these settlements providing them with access to storable goods such as fuel, canned goods and durables. However, transportation over winter roads is costly on a tonne-kilometer basis. Building ice-roads for tractors trailers and cat-trains typically costs between $3,500 and $6,000 per km. Truck shipments over ice roads are 65 to 70 % more expensive than equivalent truck transport over all-weather roads. Trucks often suffer greater damage to their suspension and tires on the land portions, experience longer delays and take a greater risk on melting lakes.
One possible solution is to spend billions of dollars constructing all-weather roads to access northern communities and developments. Permafrost soil makes it prohibitively expensive to construct and to maintain all-weather roads and the proposed routes are sometimes constrained by aboriginal land settlement negotiations and environmental approvals. As well, the construction of such roads is environmentally destructive and invasive of natural habitats.
The best solution is airships. Airships are an enabling technology that can unlock the economic potential of northern Canada.