OP-ED: Prospects For a Trans-Arctic Barge Canal Across Canada

Published Nov 19, 2012 2:43 PM by Harry Valentine

Written by Harry Valentine

Maritime transportation is able to move bulk tonnage and bulk volume more efficiently that surface or air modes of transportation. While rail lines and highways proliferate across most of Canada and the USA, much freight moves by water between American ports, between Canadian ports and internationally within the North American continent. Such maritime operations prevail on the Great Lakes, along the St Lawrence Seaway and along the Mississippi River. New developments in hydroelectric power, barge-train technology, articulated ship technology and the mining industries could create a basis to develop a future barge canal that would connect parts of Western Canada to Hudson Bay and to the Beaufort Sea.

Future Beaufort Sea Port:

Canada has indicated a willingness to export Compressed-Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to Asian markets and a massive well of natural gas is believed to exist near the mouth of the Mackenzie River, at the Beaufort Sea that is navigable for a few months every year. The future operation of resource ships to NW Canada opens the door to expand export operations involving other natural resources. Several mines operate across Western Canada, in close proximity to rivers that could be developed into navigable barge canals.

Barge trains could carry ore and mining products along the Mackenzie River to its mouth, where barge-to-ship transfer of bulk cargo may occur. In the absence of a pipeline, barge trains could carry LNG along the Mackenzie River during summer, to southern and southeastern destinations where it may be transferred into pipelines. There may be future prospects to develop the Port of Tuktoyaktuk for commercial shipping.

Changing Weather Patterns:

If the global warming trend continues, agricultural production could move further north in Western Canada and closer to rivers that could be developed into navigable barge canals. Barge trains could carry agricultural produce such as wheat, oats, barley and dried legumes to a port located at the Port of Tuktoyaktuk where barge-to-ship transfer of cargo may occur. However, climate researchers such as Piers Corbyn offer a different theory that heating and cooling climatic cycles are based on long-term solar cycles.

The solar cycle theory suggests that a global cooling trend may emerge over the next several decades. Its implications suggest the continued closure of trans-arctic shipping through Canada’s Northwest Passage that has not been navigable for several hundred years. It would likely discourage trans-arctic shipping along Russia’s northern coast, a result of the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift carrying slightly cooler water into the Barents Sea.

During a period of global cooling, the southernmost region of the Beaufort Sea may likely be navigable for a few months during the northern summer, perhaps as far as to the Port of Tuktoyaktuk. There may be a need for icebreaker ships to assure a navigable passage through the southern pack ice throughout a future northern navigation season. Small icebreaker vessels could keep the northern section of the Mackenzie River navigable as summer approaches and as it ends, allowing a navigation season of 4 to 6-months.

Barge Canal Route:

The Mackenzie River is navigable from Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea to Great Slave Lake and upstream along the Slave River a point near the western exit of Lake Athabasca in Alberta. There is scope to dredge an interconnecting navigable canal with navigation locks, between the southern Slave River and Lake Athabasca, with further scope to develop navigable interconnecting canals between the eastern entrance to Lake Athabasca and Wollaston Lake.

The topography in the southeastern area of Wollaston Lake may allow for the development of a navigable canal into Reindeer Lake. That lake is located some 500-km (310-miles) directly to the west of the Port of Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay. There will be much challenge in developing a navigable barge canal along the Churchill River, upstream of the Port of Churchill and connect it via navigable canal, to Reindeer Lake.

A future prospect of barge trains sailing seasonally between the ports of Churchill and Tuktoyaktuk, would invite researchers to examine the prospect of developing a barge canal on rivers across Northern Ontario, between James Bay and Lake Superior, or one of the other northern Great Lakes. An alternative option may involve a navigable barge canal across Quebec, between James Bay and Lac St Jean, from where barge trains may sail into the Lower St Lawrence River and several ports on that river.

During a period of global warming, barge trains may carry agricultural produce and mining resources along a future navigable canal system, to either the Port of Churchill or to a port on the Beaufort Sea. During a period of global cooling, barge trains could carry shipping containers between the Port of Tuktoyaktuk and either the Port of Churchill on Hudson Bay, or alternative ports on the Great Lakes or Lower St Lawrence River. Barge trains would interline at the Beaufort Sea with ships that serve Asian ports and at an Ontario/Quebec port with ships that serve European ports.

Barge Train Technology:

There has in recent years, been a technical advance in barge train technology and operations. On the Mississippi River in the USA, tow boats once pulled groups of barges that were tied to each other both width wise and lengthwise. There was often a lack of directional control over the barge trains that could drift off-course and collide with a bridge pier or run aground. However, the modern barges that entered service over the preceding decade are coupled into trains use a different coupling system that allows for propulsion and steering to be applied at the stern of the train.

The stern of newer Mississippi barges are built with a concave V-shaped or V-notch stern that matches the profile of the bow. A set of dual coupling bumpers allows the bow of the trailing barge to couple into the V-notch stern of the barge ahead of it and form a rigid train. The coupling system allow for some pitching motion between barges, to adjust to small waves encountered when barge trains that sail in opposite directions, pass each other. Such barges technology could operate along navigable inland Canadian waterways.

Articulated Ship:

An articulated ship built with transverse-axis hinges actually sailed the North Atlantic during the 1930’s. While the Mississippi couple barge train technology can sail and steer as a rigid ship, the coupling system allows for some freedom of pitching and rolling. The articulated ship concept being developed by the SeaSnake Corporation (http://www.seasnake.net) may be offered as a barge concept that may allow extended length freight watercraft to negotiate through twists and curves along waterways. A coupled-articulated barge train concept could carry over 1,000-shipping containers or more.

Computer-Assisted Navigation:

An extended length, articulated barge train would require some form of computer-assisted navigation for it to sail within a designated channel and through meanders along waterways. Markers may be placed along the shoreline, be submerged under the navigation channel or the navigation computers may read input from GPS technology.

Waterway Precedents:

There may be scope to apply precedents from hydro dam construction in Quebec and along the St Lawrence Seaway, to rivers in Northern Manitoba where navigation locks may be built alongside hydroelectric power dams. Hydroelectric development in both Quebec and Northern Ontario included the diversion of rivers, to maintain water depth in the holding reservoirs. Similar diversions of rivers were undertaken in Europe to develop the European barge canal system and could be applied to a northwestern Canadian barge canal, to maintain navigation depth along some rivers that flow across Northern Canada.


Precedents along the Mississippi River system have shown that barge train technology can be cost competitive with road truck as well as railway technology when moving massive volume and when moving massive bulk tonnage. Roads and railways connect between the Port of New Orleans and same ports as the barges, along the Mississippi barge canal system. That precedent indicates that there are times when barge trains can be cost competitive against trucks and the railways. Coupled-articulated barge trains could carry many times the tonnage and volume of railway freight trains, enhancing the feasibility of the technology.

That seasonal tonnage would help cover the costs of canal construction and operation, perhaps to the point of full cost recovery. The feasibility of a barge canal between ports on the Beaufort Sea and Hudson Bay will depend on the ability to move massive tonnage and/or massive volume at very low cost, compared to road freight and railway freight operations. Given the restrictions on draft and beam, the feasibility of coupled barge train operations would depend on the technology being built to extreme length, using articulated coupling technology.

During a period of global warming and an extended northern agricultural growing season, the amount of bulk freight from agriculture and from mining industries would likely cover the cost of modifying river channels between Reindeer Lake and the Beaufort Sea. The bulk tonnage moving through the Port of Churchill may also cover the cost of modifying river channels between Reindeer Lake and the Port of Churchill.

Asia – European Freight:

During a period of global cooling, much seasonal bulk tonnage may move by river channel between the Port of Tuktoyaktuk and the Port of Churchill. Barge trains could carry shipping containers from Asia to a container port at the Port of Churchill, on the Upper Great Lakes courtesy of a barge canal across Northern Ontario, or on the Lower St Lawrence River courtesy of a barge canal across Quebec. European bound ships would sail from a Canadian port carrying the combination of containers from both Asia and North America.

A trans-Northern-Canadian barge canal would allow Asia-bound ships sailing from the Port of Tuktoyaktuk during summer, to carry shipping containers from European, Eastern Canadian and Northeastern American origins. Ships from Europe would carry Asia-bound containers aboard a ship carrying a compliment of Canadian and US-bound containers, possibly to a container port located along the Lower St Lawrence River. The feasibility of the trans-Canada coupled-articulated barge trains would depend on their ability to carry many times the freight volume and tonnage at much lower cost than trucks and the railways.


There is scope for other transportation researchers to further evaluate the feasibility of a barge canal across Northwestern Canada connecting between ports on the Beaufort Sea and either Hudson Bay or the St Lawrence River. Under one scenario, such a canal could compliment mining and agriculture while under the opposite scenario, such a canal could evolve into a faster seasonal transportation route between European and Asian ports as compared to the voyage via the Panama Canal.


About the Author

Mr. Valentine holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, with specialization in thermodynamics (energy conversion) and transportation technology.

He served as a research assistant to Dr Ata Khan, professor of transportation engineering who is still on staff at Carleton University.  Mr. Valentine has a background in free-market economics and has worked as a technical journalist for the past 10-years in the energy and transportation industries.

Over a period of 20 years he has undertaken extensive research, authored and published numerous technical articles in the field of transportation energy.  His economics commentaries have included several articles on issues that pertain to electric power generation.

Mr. Valentine has technical journalistic experience covering low-grade and high-grade geothermal energy, steam generators (with continuous blow down to keep the boiler water clean), engine exhausts, solar thermal (low-grade and low-grade thermal), nuclear and coal-fired thermal steam-power stations.

He can be reached at [email protected].

MarEx does not necessarily endorse any opinions herein.

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