Saskatchewan resources and maritime transportation

By Harry Valentine

Western Canal Route
Western Canal Route

Saskatchewan’s resource and agricultural sectors have long depended on maritime transportation to carry the province’s exports to distant markets. Railway lines carried Saskatchewan’s bulk exports to the ports of Churchill, Thunder Bay and Vancouver for transfer to ships. These railway lines, which date back many decades, precede the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway and commercial navigation along the Mackenzie River. Recent developments along the European barge canal system suggest the possibility of bringing maritime transportation closer to Saskatchewan.

American Maritime Precedent

During 2005, Sea Point Marine of New Orleans studied the cost of shipping containers between Long Beach, California, and Memphis, Tennessee, comparing the maritime route via the Panama Canal and Mississippi River to direct freight-train service. Despite the additional sailing distance and a transfer of container from ship to barge at New Orleans, maritime transportation incurred a cost-savings of some US$200 per container upon arrival at Memphis. Maritime’s savings in terms of economy of scale forms the basis of bulk-freight transportation across the Great Lakes and along the inland waterway system.

In 2010, professor Jerry Fruin of the University of Minnesota published a report comparing the cost of shipments by rail, truck and inland waterway over distances of up to 1,000 miles. His research indicated that a single tug-pushed barge of 50-foot width by 270-foot length could carry 72 containers at lower total cost than either railway or truck transport over such distance. Coupled assemblies of multiple barges called tows carry transport containers which transport bulk freight, such as grain or barrels of oil, along the American and European inland waterway networks.

Tanker Barges

A tug-pushed tanker barge of 50-foot (15.3-metre) beam by 295-foot (90-metre) length can carry 30,000 barrels each, with a tow of six barges coupled two abreast by three lengthwise able to carry up to 185,000 barrels of oil. Tug-pushed and navigated tows of barge-tankers carry an estimated 16 per cent of domestic American crude oil along the Mississippi River that is barge navigable to St. Paul, Minn. while the Missouri River is barge-navigable as far north as Sioux City, Iowa. Growing public opposition to pipelines in the U.S.A. provides oil transportation opportunities to trucks, railways and river barges.

Pipelines may connect America’s Bakken oilfields to oil terminals on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, at Sioux City and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The pipelines would involve 33 per cent of the distance to oil refineries on the American Gulf Coast. Future American Bakken oil development could prompt extending Missouri barge navigation from Sioux City to Bismarck or Williston, N.D., near the Canadian border. Should oil barges gain access to Williston, bulk-freight shippers from Saskatchewan could gain access to cost-competitive waterway transportation to Toledo, Ohio on Lake Erie and ships that sail to overseas destinations.

Canadian Waterway Prospects

The Mackenzie River is barge-navigable between the Beaufort Sea and Great Slave Lake. Precedents developed along the expanded European barge network may develop a barge-navigable canal though the Slave River to Lake Athabasca in northern Saskatchewan, with additional barge-navigable waterway connections upstream to Lake Wollaston and an excavated navigable canal to Reindeer Lake that flows into the Reindeer and Churchill rivers. European precedent suggests the possibility of a barge-navigable canal from the Churchill River to Deschambault Lake, and through Amisk and Cumberland lakes to the eastern section of the Saskatchewan River.

Recent revisions to Canada’s navigable waterway act offer future prospects of expanding Canadian inland waterway commercial navigation, including into northern Saskatchewan, northern Alberta and toward lakes Winnipeg and Winnipegosis. The close proximity of the eastern section of the Saskatchewan River to the Manitoba lakes allows for possible uphill pumping of water, for the purpose of maintaining barge-navigable depth along the eastern section of the Saskatchewan River. A navigable waterway system could carry massive volumes of bulk freight from both Saskatchewan and Manitoba to ocean ships destined for Asia at the mouth of the Mackenzie River.

10-2 Transport Cost Comparisions

Northern Navigation

Ships have already sailed across the Russian side of the Arctic, between the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans. There is an annual window-of-opportunity that allows for barge navigation along the Mackenzie River, as well as ship navigation across the Beaufort Sea between the Bering Strait and the Mackenzie River. During that period, there would be future potential to ship bulk agricultural produce, bulk mining ore and crude oil via inland waterway transport from regions in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba to the Beaufort Sea, for transfer to ships destined for overseas ports.

While the waterway between the Beaufort Sea and Slave River may be free from navigation locks, there would be a need to install navigation locks with water-saving technology between Great Slave Lake and Lake Athabasca, to maintain navigation depth and to move barge trains between different elevations. Navigation locks built to Mississippi lock dimensions may include European-style side reservoirs and/or pumps to reduce water consumption required to transit vessels sailing in opposite direction. During the four to six-month northern navigation season, river transportation may compliment pipelines and carry a seasonal peak load of oil.

Seaway Oil Navigation

An oil pipeline from Saskatchewan’s Bakken region may connect to an oil terminal at Thunder Bay, Ont., from where oil-tanker ships may carry crude oil across the Great Lakes to oil refineries near Sarnia, Ont., or through the St. Lawrence Seaway to eastern Canadian oil refineries. The Seaway option would be available during late March to late December, during which time the maritime option may supplement an oil pipeline built across eastern Canada. During summertime, the maritime option allows crude oil to move into central and eastern Canada while the pipeline undergoes regular repair and maintenance.

Future Navigation

Several rivers flow in opposite direction from the same watershed region in Northwestern Ontario, emptying into Lake Winnipeg and Lake Superior. Precedents from the European barge canal system offer the future prospect of developing a navigable canal between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg, with a possible extended waterway connection to Lake Athabasca and the Mackenzie River. Such a canal system may carry output from the resources, mining and agricultural sectors of Saskatchewan and Manitoba to provide a potentially cost-competitive transportation link to ocean transport and overseas markets.

Transportation Economics

While pipelines may be the optimal form of transportation for oil, maritime bulk-freight transportation is cost-competitive against railway and road transportation, possibly even safer given recent mishaps involving railway and truck transportation of oil. A tow of six tanker barges (50-foot by 295-foot, coupled two abreast by three lengthwise) can carry the equivalent volume of crude oil as 250 railway tank cars. The increased maritime navigation distance of the Long Beach and Memphis precedent suggests that inland waterway transportation may move bulk freight from Saskatchewan to either Lake Erie or to an ocean port at a lower cost than truck or railway.

The cost of an ocean voyage between the Mackenzie River and several Asian ports would be cost-competitive with the ocean voyage to/from Vancouver. Precedents in American maritime economics suggest that the cost of carrying bulk freight via inland waterway between Saskatchewan/Manitoba to the mouth of the Mackenzie may be lower that the cost of moving the same tonnage by rail to a Pacific bulk port. Access to inland waterway networks that connect to ocean/lake ships could offer competitive transportation costs to Saskatchewan exporters, and especially as the resource sector expands in northern Saskatchewan.


A navigable canal system may carry the output and products of Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s mining, resources and agricultural sectors at competitive transportation costs, to connecting overseas maritime transportation. The volume and mass tonnage that will sail along the canal system will ultimately justify the development and operating cost. It warrants further study and further evaluation. A consortium of private companies may consider developing such a waterway transportation system using private funding.



One thought on “Saskatchewan resources and maritime transportation

  • June 25, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Hello there,

    My name is Kathryn and I work for a company called M.S.E. Drilling and Grouting in Ontario. I am contacting you with an inquiry with regards to summer barge logistics for as we are looking for transport heavy equipment to the Whitesand Dam on Reindeer River.

    Please let me know if this is something you could help us with, or if there is someone you know who could help us.

    Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon,


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