Port Facilities Could Help Canada's Churchill

Churchill, Canada.

By Harry Valentine 10-30-2017 08:54:55

As a result of a flood that washed out a remote service railway line, the port town of Churchill on Canada’s Hudson Bay now depends on airplanes to deliver food and other essential items. Maritime could be an option.

Many decades ago, the Government of Canada built a maritime terminal at the town of Churchill, located on the west side of Hudson Bay, with a railway line that connected to Western Canada’s agricultural food basket.

For many decades, bulk ships carried Western Canadian grain produce from the Port of Churchill to overseas markets. The town depended on the railway line to carry food and other goods from the more heavily populated southern regions. Advances in bulk freight transportation technology have made the Port of Churchill less relevant in grain transportation, prompting its closure. 

A flood in early 2017 damaged the railway line and suspended train service to the town of 900 people. While there is political pressure to reactivate the railway line, a maritime option may be possible.

The Hudson Bay Communities

During the cold northern winter, a cover of ice prevents maritime sailing on most of Hudson Bay. When the weather is warm, it is possible for maritime transportation to gain access to several coastal communities in the region. James Bay extends south from the southeastern area of Hudson Bay to the town of Moosonee that has railway service that extends south to Canada’s most densely populated region. It appears possible at Moosonee, to develop intermodal connections between railway and maritime transportation that could carry food and goods to several Hudson Bay coastal communities. 

During recent winters, temperatures in the southern region of Hudson Bay have been sufficiently warm to actually allow for some winter navigation. As well, there have been recent advances in wing-in-ground (W-I-G) effect vessel technology in South Korea, Australia and Singapore, with potential to adapt such technology to operate on Hudson Bay. The technology would have to include a collision avoidance system as a result of icebergs being present on the bay. W-I-G vessels consume a fraction of the fuel as airplanes, reducing transportation costs while traveling above water at many times the speed of boats.

Canadian Regulation Issue

A builder of W-I-G craft approached an official of Canada’s Transport Department with the interest of having W-I-G vessels touch down on and lift off from coastal airports. The official advised that since the IMO classified W-I-G craft as boats, they had to lift off from and touch down on water, but could be pulled out of water at coastal boat ramps. Except that during winter, the temperature across Hudson Bay and James Bay drops to below the freezing point of water and resulting in an absence of a water surface on which to touch down and lift off.
The Government of Canada is seeking to reduce carbon emissions, and W-I-G vessels connecting to communities around Hudson Bay would emit less carbon and incur lower operating cost than aircraft. Canada’s transport minister wants vessels to reduce speed so as not to injure marine mammals. W-I-G vessels that touch down on and lift off from coastal ice/snow or tarmac runways would avoid colliding with marine mammals. It is possible that one official in Canada’s transport department may be at cross purposes with the objectives of the national government and also the Minister of Transport.

Challenges and Opportunities

The iceberg situation across Hudson Bay presents conditions requires that the crew of W-I-G craft be aware of distant obstacles. One option would be that once underway, for the craft to reel out a small tethered glider that carries surveillance equipment to fly at sufficiently high elevation to ‘see’ about 50 kilometers (30 miles) ahead. Several Canadian companies are involved in developing autonomous vehicle navigation technology that could assist in W-I-G craft navigation on Hudson Bay. The technology could plot a course that the craft could follow as it visits various coastal communities located around Hudson Bay.

During the frigid northern winter, the absence of a water surface would require that the W-I-G technology be able touch down on and lift off from both a liquid as well as a solid surface such as a snow runway, an ice runway or an existing runway located next to or near the coast. The location of most coastal runways would require the operation of Type ‘B’ craft capable of climbing to 150 meters (490 feet) elevation and capable of covering extreme distances during Arctic winter conditions. There may also be application for Type ‘A’ craft that climbs to 45 percent of its wingspan.

Reducing Transportation Costs

The cost of providing aircraft services to remote communities is high. However, there is scope to reduce transportation costs to several communities by changing the transportation technology. Year round coastal ferries provide service to many remote Canadian Pacific coast communities. Railway lines extend north to Moosonee on James Bay (Hudson Bay), to Hay River (Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie River) while railway and maritime services connect to points around the Gulf of St Lawrence, including to the coastal airport at Stephenville, Newfoundland that could serve as the southern terminal for W-I-G craft that serve eastern remote communities. 

W-I-G craft could operate from coastal airports at Hay River, Moosonee and at Stephenville to connect to remote communities located along the Mackenzie River extending to the Beaufort Sea, to several coastal communities around Hudson Bay and to remote coastal communities in northeastern Canada. Canada’s largest community north of 60 degrees latitude, Iqaluit has a coastal airport as do several other coastal communities, some of which serve as transfer points for goods being transported inland. Due to lower fuel consumption than aircraft, switching to W-I-G vehicles on some routes would incur lower transportation costs to several communities.


Wing-in-ground effect craft could operate through oceanic coastal channels found along Canada’s Pacific coast, along the Mackenzie River from Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea, on Hudson Bay while a much larger version of the technology could operate on Canada’s east coast.

While officials at Canada’s national transportation department may oppose W-I-G craft touching down on and lifting off from solid surface runways, sub-freezing winter temperatures on James Bay, Hudson Bay, the Mackenzie River, Great Slave Lake and the Beaufort Sea make touch downs on and lift-offs from water impossible.

If the Canadian government wants lower cost transportation to/from several communities in its remote northern regions, then the issue of winter time W-I-G craft operation touching down on and lifting off from solid surface runways will have to be resolved. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.