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Trans-Arctic Container Vessel Shuttle Option

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Using the most modern container vessel design for the Arctic, it is technically feasible to establish a container traffic link between North America and Europe via the Northern Sea Route, a 2005 study concluded.

The evaluation, funded by the Institute of the North and executed by Finnish-based Aker Arctic Technology, used ice operational simulations and only evaluated the feasibility of vessel design, not the economic feasibility of the concept. Such economic analysis is still needed before a trans-Arctic shuttle operation can be considered as a serious alternative to today’s route via the Panama Canal.

Assuming twin trans-shipment ports in Alaska and Iceland, the study evaluated vessels that were 750 TEU and 5,000 TEU. The simulations were based on two different kinds of years, average winter ice conditions and severe winter ice conditions, for both vessels. The evaluation used the double-acting operation design which allows the vessel to travel the traditional bow ahead in open water and, by using a propeller system that turns 180 degrees, to go stern ahead in ice-covered waters.

The 750 TEU Arctic container vessel for the study was a modified version of the Norlisk Nickel’s Arctic Express, which moves nickel plate year-round and without icebreaker assistance between the ports of Dudinka and Murmansk in the Russian Federation. The theoretical study vessel was modified from carrying nickel plate to container storage both below and above deck. The design also doubled the size of the fuel storage due to the longer sailing required. The ship could ply the shallow waters near the coastline of northern Russia, but simulation runs indicated it would need some traditional icebreaker assistance in severe winter conditions.

The 5,000 TEU vessel used the same icebreaking design, just on a larger scale. While the larger vessel will accommodate more containers, the size and especially the draft of 13.5 meters would prohibit it for use along the traditionally shallow-draft route of the NSR.

While the study does not look at the cost of fairway fees in this scenario, it does note that the current fee structure along the NSR is based on the paradigm of using icebreakers and “paying potential.” Therefore, today the movement of natural resources along the NSR pays high fees whether using icebreaker assistance or not. This type of fee policy is not suitable for cargo vessels that are capable of independent operations, as the fee should be paid if the icebreaker assistance is needed, according to the study.

As noted, it is anticipated that the smaller study vessel would need icebreaker support some of the year, while the larger vessel would not. However, if the 5,000 TEU ship needed assistance it would require two icebreakers due to the width of the vessel. Another issue the larger study vessel poses is the ability to travel outside the traditional NSR routes.

Using only economic input related to the cost of the vessel, the operational costs, the amount of cargo that could be delivered and other related issues, the transport cost from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to a port in Iceland via the NSR for the larger study vessel would be between $US354 TEU and $US526 TEU, and between $US1,244 TEU and $US1,887 TEU for the smaller container ship. It needs to be noted again that these figures do not include all of the economic considerations that are needed to make an accurate evaluation, such as fairway/icebreaker fees, port infrastructure costs, terminal and harbor costs and the cost to offload cargo onto the shuttle vessel, as well as transferring it back to an open-ocean vessel after reaching the twin port.

“All of these factors are unclear, uncertain and difficult to estimate,” the study concludes. “Most adverse of them might be the fairway fees, of which a current estimate of $US900 to $US1,000 TEU can be given for traffic” in 2005. “The second could be the cost for building and running the terminals which could be in the same category as the cost of the vessels. Of course, the terminals for the large and effective 5,000 TEU vessel are much more expensive than those for the 750 TEU vessel, but cost per container may be lower for the larger traffic volume. Of less importance and even more difficult to clarify and estimate may be the feeder link cost. Even the existing system using the southern route includes feeder links to the container hub ports and how this picture would be changed for the Arctic Shuttle Container Link remains to be clarified. However, it is expected that extra costs compared to the prevalent system could be created.”


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©