'It's about time to build a road to Churchill': Engineer says it's possible

After flood damage forced the closure of the only land link to Churchill, Man. — a railway from Gillam — a civil engineer says it's time to reconsider building a permanent road linking the northern community to the south.

There are ways to build on permafrost, peat bog, says man who worked on highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk

This section of the Hudson Bay Railway is just one of 24 areas between Gillam and Churchill that are impassable after flooding. While building a highway to the northern Manitoba town poses challenges, engineer Marolo Alfaro thinks it's possible. (Omnitrax)

The land between the northern Manitoba town of Churchill and its nearest southern neighbours poses a host of challenges to building any kind of permanent road.

But after flood damage severed the only land link to the community — a railway from Gillam — one civil engineer with experience constructing highways in the far north thinks it's time to build one.

Marolo Alfaro, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Manitoba, worked on the construction of a highway connecting Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories.

"That is even more challenging compared to this stretch of highway [to Churchill]," he said.

Alfaro has studied how roads behave in northern regions and says the lessons learned from his research can be applied to a future highway to Churchill.

Churchill, a community of about 900 people, is about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. It became a fly-in only community after flooding damaged the Hudson Bay Rail line in about 24 places. Omnitrax, the company that owns the railway, said it could take until spring 2018 to repair the line.

Alfaro said the costs associated with flying in all the supplies needed by residents of Churchill bolsters the case for a permanent highway.

"I think it's about time to build a road to Churchill," said Alfaro.

Permafrost, peat presents problems

The distance between Gillam and Churchill is more than 270 kilometres in a straight line, although a road would likely be longer and cover a landscape of variable terrain.

Permafrost — a layer of subsurface soil and rock that remains frozen for years — presents a challenge for engineers. Road beds need to be built up to prevent heat seeping down into the ground and thawing the soil underneath.

Churchill has been without rail service for weeks after a spring flood damaged the only rail line into the northern Manitoba town. (Omnitrax)
A road to Churchill would have to cross regions of continuous permafrost in northern Manitoba, as well as areas of sporadic permafrost in the south.

More challenging than the permafrost, however, are the peat bogs that underlie much of the southern stretch between Gillam and Churchill, said Alfaro.

Peat, or muskeg, is boggy ground consisting of high amounts of organic material and water. This makes it highly compressible and it also decomposes over time, reducing its capacity to carry loads.

Due to the instability of the ground, construction can only be done in winter, said Alfaro, and building materials can be far away from the construction site. 

Seasonal flooding is also a concern.

But Alfaro is confident these challenges can be overcome. "I think engineers will meet those challenges," he said.

Lessons from Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway

Construction of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway began in 2014 and the highway is expected to open this fall. It stretches approximately 130 kilometres and cost around $300 million.

In order to create a stable surface and avoid cutting into mounds, thereby disturbing the permafrost, crews built up embankments as high as two or three storeys to fill dips in the landscape, said Alfaro.

They also used geotextiles, special fabric that reinforces the soil while also allowing water to drain out.

Crew members stand on the gravel where the two sides of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway met in April 2016. While the highway proves the engineering technology to build a road to Churchill now exists, engineer Marolo Alfaro can't say how long it would take to actually make it happen. (EGT Northwind)

"Your fill materials are compacted frozen and there's really high ice content in there, so when you compact during winter and the following summer then it melts," he said.

This past winter marked the third winter of construction, but plans for an all-weather road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk originated in the 1960s.

2007 Churchill highway feasibility study

The idea of building an all-weather road to Churchill is also not new. Discussions around building a highway network connecting northern Manitoba and Nunavut began as early 2001.

This map, from the 2007 Nunavut-Manitoba Route Selection Study, shows three potential routes for a permanent road network connecting northern Manitoba and Rankin Inlet in Nunavut. (Nishi-Khon/SNC-Lavlin)

A two-year study completed in 2007 on behalf of the Manitoba and Nunavut governments looked at potential routes for an all-weather road network.

It concluded the most cost-effective location for the southern terminus of the network would be the community of Sundance, which is close to Gillam.

The report looked at the technical challenges of building a road along that route and concluded that it would be "feasible."

Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, agrees.

"In terms of building the road, I don't think there's a question that we can build roads. And maybe instead of putting more bad money over good on the rail line, it might be a good idea," he said.

With the problems facing the railway, there's a need to explore alternatives, said Tim Johnston, former mayor of Thompson and general manager of Community Futures North Central Development, a Thompson-based community economic development agency.

"I know this — I'm not convinced that we can solve the problem that has been ongoing with the same solutions that we've tried in the past, because I'm not sure they've worked," he said.

Prentice recognizes the technical challenges of building in the North, but thinks there are solutions. Aerial mapping technology has advanced to the point where a route could be found, he said.

"As they say, where there's a will, there's a way," he said.

The case for a highway

The 2007 study included community consultations and found widespread agreement among residents in the region that a permanent road would have significant economic benefits.

"I think part of that is having a northern infrastructure plan and then investing in those areas that are going to get us the greatest rate of return," said Johnston.

Alfaro agrees that building a permanent road to the North would provide a better quality of life for the people of Churchill.

"Communities in the North need additional support in terms of health care, education, employment opportunities, and to support the high cost of living, because if you don't have land transportation — mostly air — then it will be very expensive," he said.

Canada has lagged behind countries like the United States and Russia on developing transportation routes on its Arctic coast, said Alfaro.

"I would say that the benefits of building a northern distribution centre, with the road and ship connections, will be important in terms of Canada's development in the North."

Through increased tourism and development of mineral, petrocarbon and hydroelectric resources, Alfaro sees many potential benefits to a permanent road.

Effects of climate change

Climate change is expected to warm the North, leading to shorter life spans for winter ice roads, but also increasing the "active" layer of soil above the permafrost that thaws in the summer.

Prentice worries that this could put any future road at risk. The authors of the 2007 study, however, concluded "the potential impacts of global climate change and related thaw settlement and erosion issues could be understood, addressed and mitigated where feasible."

Alfaro agrees, saying new data from climatologists will help. "Once we know that, we will put that one in our computer simulation and then predict how the permafrost will degrade.… Then we can predict how much it will move."

While the engineering technology to build a road to Churchill now exists, Alfaro can't say how long it would take to actually make it happen.

"It will be more of a political decision between the federal and provincial governments."

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Robin Summerfield