Evidence of meeting #35 for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was airships.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

10:15 a.m.

Conservative

Lawrence Toet Elmwood—Transcona, MB

We talked about 2,000 kilometres of ice roads in Manitoba. I have two questions. How many kilometres of ice road would we eliminate through your proposal of three airships? The other part is how many communities that we are not able to serve today with ice roads would we be able to serve if we had the airship answer?

10:15 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

First of all, you would be able to serve every community up there with the airships. There is no community in Manitoba that would not be served if that were the case.

There would still be some community ice roads built, but they may not have to be built to the outside. The people who live there take advantage of the winter to visit their relatives in the communities. They'll drive back and forth on the ice roads to visit the various communities, but they can do that on very small ice roads in pickup trucks and otherwise. It's the carrying of tractor trailers where you need the thick ice.

There's no reason we wouldn't be able to serve them all. I will give you a snapshot cost of the price difference. The Province of Manitoba has looked at a plan to put permanent gravel roads on the east side of Lake Winnipeg that would serve a population of 15,200 people. It's 852 kilometres of gravel roads, and the price tag is $2.8 billion. It's a tremendous cost, and it's partly because you're building across muskeg, swamp, outcrops, and permafrost. It's a really difficult terrain. That doesn't even deal with the issues like the caribou and the wildlife that get disturbed by building roads through this area.

In my mind, the roads are really not a very good solution, and they're certainly not a competitive solution versus the airship, which would be able to serve all these communities.

10:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Merv Tweed

Thank you.

Go ahead, Ms. Morin.

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Isabelle Morin Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

I will share my time with my colleague Jack Harris.

We talked a lot about roads and aircraft, but I would like you to discuss more specifically railways. There is a railway line all the way to Moose Creek. I would like you to tell us why, in your opinion, airships are a better option than the existing railroads.

10:15 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

First of all, I should tell you that, by training, I'm a transportation economist. I love trains. I love roads. I love all modes of transport, so I have no particular bias, but each one has its benefits.

The merits of trains are for very high volumes and very long distances. For moving coal, grain, or potash, there's nothing that will compete with a train, and we should always use trains.

When you're looking at relatively low volumes and relatively short distances, the trains are a very expensive option. The track alone, the steel, is tremendously expensive to maintain. On a mainline track you have to replace 25 railway ties every year on average per mile. You have to replace the steel, you have to replace the ballast, and the train sets are expensive.

We simply do not have the volume of traffic to justify trains in the north. Even with a train such as the one going to Moosonee, one of its big problems is there's not enough volume of traffic to pay for the rail line, and it's the same with the one to Churchill. The railways have been abandoning the branch lines for the very same reason across the country and sticking to the mainlines. That's the principal reason why the trains don't serve.

10:20 a.m.

NDP

Isabelle Morin Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Thank you.

However, in the opinion of many, freight carriage by means of airships could be too costly, somewhat too slow and therefore a bit less profitable.

You say that Transport Canada does not want to deal with this file, which is rather strange. Since airships have been in existence for 100 years and have never been very popular, I wonder how come they are being presented today, in 2012, as a miraculous solution. If they are so miraculous, why did they not raise any interest earlier?

10:20 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

It's a very valid question. It gets asked on a regular basis, and it should be. It's historical in many ways. It has to do with investment in the technology.

Before the Second World War airships and airplanes were neck-and-neck as to which was going to be the main passenger carrier. Airships were actually winning, because they were deemed to be safer than airplanes.

Airplanes weren't safe for crossing oceans before the Second World War, but airships had proven to be a disaster in terms of a military craft. They're not a very good aggressive craft, whereas airplanes were the best for that. So between the Germans, the Japanese, the Americans, the British, the French, and everybody else, in that five-year period half a million airplanes were built. We went from airplanes that weren't safe to cross oceans, to high-altitude bombers and jet engines. Then with the Cold War, they just continued to pour public money into investing in airplanes.

The private sector picked up on this, so the Boeing 707 aircraft came out as a passenger airline. Fuel was cheap. Nobody was carrying freight at that time, except in the bellies. Nobody cared about the environment. Every place you wanted to go there was a runway, so why would anybody invest in airships?

As time went on, even though people said maybe we should look at airships again, there was never a compelling case because airplanes had all the pilots and ground crews trained from the military. All the investment had been made in the aircraft already. There was really no compelling case to build airships. That is really why they have never gone forward. Now things have changed, and we're in a situation where they do make sense.

10:20 a.m.

NDP

Isabelle Morin Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Very well.

I will give the floor to my colleague.

10:20 a.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Thank you for a most interesting topic that you're bringing up.

Airship transportation in the north is also of importance to my province of Newfoundland and Labrador. We have difficulties and costs supplying a population in the northern part of the province in Labrador, but we don't have the ice road situation. I think that's a big issue in Manitoba and other parts of the north.

I have two questions on climate, and maybe on the price of fuel, and what not. Do we have a potential problem with the warming of the winters and the ice roads being unstable? Is that why you think this might be a solution? Will this potentially help offset some of those problems we're seeing on the horizon?

Secondly—Mr. Russell might want to comment, or either one, it doesn't matter—is there a niche in transatlantic travel and cargo with respect to airships, given the historical reliance on wind to bring goods and people across the Atlantic? The trade winds blowing one way in the spring and the other way in the fall help you out, and you don't have to use as much fuel. Is that just a romantic notion, or is it something that might realistically fit in with your notion of transportation economics? Is that just a pipedream, or is it a possibility as well?

10:20 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

The airships used to cross the Atlantic in 24 to 36 hours, which is very fast for cargo movement. Very little cargo has to move at 500 miles an hour. The railway's average speed, by the way, is about 25 miles an hour. If you can go 80 miles an hour in an airship, that's actually quite fast and reliable. Crossing oceans is a very desirable market for them.

On the ice roads, my view is that a trend will continue until you see a change in the trend. We're seeing the trend continuing very dramatically, and it's not changing.

Mr. Ginter is the expert on ice roads, so I'll perhaps let him answer that question.

10:25 a.m.

Acting Director, Impact and Benefit Agreement, Moose Cree First Nation

Guy S. Ginter

This year was a classic example of what we're seeing more and more. The road was available for a significantly shorter period of time, and the danger is that if you can't get all your goods in within that window you're stuck for a year. You have no other option in northern Ontario, you just do not. I suspect it would be exactly the same in almost every other region. You just miss your window, period, end of conversation. Whatever you're going to do on this winter's road needs to happen on the following winter's road, because your window could be 20 to 25 days.

There was a time when 60 to 65 days was not uncommon for a non-commercial road. You just don't get that any more. That's a function of where we are today.

One elder said to me that this is the same weather he remembers in 1947. Now, I'm not sure if that's a function of global warming or that's a function of where we are in the cycle of weather, but regardless, we are where we are, and winter is significantly shorter than it has been in recent decades.

10:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Merv Tweed

Thank you.

Mr. Richards.

May 8th, 2012 / 10:25 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Thank you.

I appreciate all of you being here today. It's been informative and interesting.

I think there is some potential here, certainly in terms of what you're looking to do.

I've got a few questions.

I don't know a lot about airships. I know you've talked about some of the challenges and opportunities you have, but I'm curious about using them in the north. How would things like weather, heavy winds, and extreme cold affect their operations? Is that a challenge to their use in the north?

10:25 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

I'll let Mr. Russell answer that.

10:25 a.m.

President, Livingstone Range Consulting Services

Stuart Russell

Quite sincerely, I think every aircraft that flies today has a limitation. I spent ten years flying on the Hercules with Pacific Western, and we flew all over the world. Some days you could fly and some days you couldn't. We've been in the Arctic when it's 60 below and the wind is blowing 50 miles an hour for five or six days. Could anybody fly? No.

I think every aircraft has some kind of limitation. Most of the concern that I continue to hear in my discussions with people is what we're going to do when it's really windy. They're worried about the wind.

I don't think there's as much of an issue with the cold. Some days you'll be able to fly the machines and some days you won't. There will just be days when it can happen.

How many days a year could you not fly? I don't know. There will be limitations when they cannot fly, but generally speaking, with today's equipment, today's avionics, today's satellite tracking, and all the communications between any aircraft that flies, they should be able to fly as many days as is physically possible.