Ice Roads, Airships Could Work Together

By Prentice, Barry | Winnipeg Free Press, April 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

Ice Roads, Airships Could Work Together


Prentice, Barry, Winnipeg Free Press


A proposal to build an ice road from Churchill to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, has been presented with the endorsement of both federal and provincial politicians (Nunavut link down the road? March 23). Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation Minister, Steve Ashton, is quoted as recommending seasonal roads: "They are dollar for dollar one of the most cost-effective transportation initiatives you can bring into place."

He might be right, but under what conditions and compared with what means of transport? The Nunavut ice road provides a case for comparison with one of the several cargo carrying airships that are being proposed.

In prior assessments of cargo airships and ice road trucking, this author excluded the costs of building and maintaining the seasonal infrastructure. Provincial bureaucrats advised that even if no trucks were used to carry goods to the remote communities, ice roads would still be built because of social issues. First Nations residents look forward each year to this brief period when they can visit friends and relatives in the otherwise remote communities. Consequently, airship cost comparisons were limited to the direct costs of ice road trucks.

In the case of building a new ice road connection between Manitoba and Nunavut, the "social road" argument does not hold. This allows the total cost of the 650-kilometre ice road for freight to be compared to a 463-kilometre flight for a cargo airship service.

The economic model for this analysis is set out in a forthcoming paper that compares the costs of airships and gravel roads. Key variables in the model are adjusted to reflect the lower construction costs of ice roads and the higher freight rates charged by ice road truckers.

The airship used in the model is the VariaLift ARH-50. According to data provided by the developer, this all-metal, rigid airship could fly three cycles per day between Rankin Inlet and Churchill. The annual fixed costs of $8.3 million include the aircraft lease, insurance and staff. A hangar that could handle up to 25 airships adds $3.2 million to annual fleet costs. The variable costs per trip are $7,782.

The airship carries 50 tonnes and is assumed to operate 300 days per year.

Freight rates on ice roads are set competitively. In 2013, ice road truck rates are about 2.5 times the rates paid for these trucks on all-weather roads. In addition, fuel surcharges could be higher on a new ice road farther north.

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