Northern transportation corridor would have ‘revolutionary impact’

Under the east-west corridor proposal, new road and rail infrastructure in the north would increase traffic at the Port of Churchill.  |  File photo

The University of Calgary plans to raise money to research the feasibility of a national right-of-way

A Senate committee has endorsed a plan to build a northern transportation corridor that would revitalize the Port of Churchill.

The banking, trade and commerce committee has embraced a proposal by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy to build a 7,000 kilometre east-west corridor through Canada’s north.

“(It) will have as revolutionary an impact on today’s Canadian economy as the coast-to-coast railway did in the 1800s,” the committee said in a news release accompanying its 50-page report on the proposal.

“The idea is to establish a right-of-way that would accommodate highways, railways, pipelines as well as electrical transmission and communications networks.”

The right-of-way would tie into existing infrastructure such as the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Port of Churchill.

Kent Fellows, a research associate with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and one of the architects of the plan, said the Port of Churchill could be the focal point of the ambitious project.

He noted that the 7,000 kilometre corridor won’t be built all at once but rather in bits and pieces.

“We do have some infrastructure up around Churchill, so that seems like a logical place where we’d expect the early construction to go,” said Fellows.

The port is currently closed and its owner, OmniTrax, Canada is searching for a buyer.

Fellows said it’s a shame that the port is closed because geographically, it is a natural port for shipping agricultural products to Europe from the prairie provinces.

The port had been serviced by the Hudson Bay Railway line, which stretches from Churchill south to The Pas, Man. The line is out of service because of washouts.

“Basically since the dissolution of the (Canadian) Wheat Board you’ve got volumes dropping on that line,” he said.

Ports have big fixed costs that need to be spread over as much cargo as possible. Otherwise, shipping rates get too high and volumes drop even further.

Fellows believes new road and rail infrastructure in the northern prairie region would pull more traffic into the port and drive down shipping costs, making it a more attractive route for exporters.

He thinks the corridor would attract more agricultural traffic to Churchill and could draw in some mineral products out of Ontario’s Ring of Fire project.

A revitalized Churchill could also reduce congestion in the St. Lawrence Seaway, where cargo on the small vessels used to navigate the seaway is often transloaded onto bigger vessels once they reach the coast.

Churchill can accommodate the larger vessels, eliminating the costs and logistics associated with transloading.

The Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA) said the northern corridor proposal is a major undertaking that would be difficult to complete and require overcoming a number of complex issues.

In its presentation to the Senate committee, the association said the development of pipelines in the northern corridor would free up rail capacity for moving grain on Canada’s southern networks and would accommodate fluctuations in movement of containerized cargo. However, the group feels there is a better way to accomplish those goals.

“When it comes to the transportation of containerized cargo, CIFFA believes it would be more beneficial to add capacity to ex-isting railways and ports in order to meet future transportation needs,” the association said in an e-mail.

The Senate committee is urging the federal government to take a leadership role in building the national corridor, starting with a $5 million grant to the U of C’s School of Public Policy and its partner, the Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations, to further their research project.

“It’s incredibly flattering that the Senate has made this suggestion,” said Fellows.

However, he isn’t counting on money from Ottawa. The school is attempting to raise funds from a variety of sources for the next phase of the research project, which will be a series of eight sub-studies ranging from establishing the physical dimensions of the right-of-way to strategic implications for Arctic sovereignty.

Those sub-studies are expected to take one to three years to complete.

Fellows said the northern corridor is a huge undertaking, but he pointed out that the Canadian Pacific Railway has been paying dividends to the Canadian economy for more than a century.

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