Mining and exploration review north of the 60th parallel

Changing Seasons – Ice road experts counter seasonal drag with summer civil works

22 - summer1After spending 16 years establishing themselves as the premier ice road construction and transportation provider in Canada’s north, Tli Cho Landtran (TCL) is working to diversify its offerings in the unique world of northern construction.

“We want to avoid that bubble where 80 per cent of our revenue comes from the winter road season, and 20 per cent for the rest of the year. We want to work towards a more sustainable model, where it’s closer to 60 per cent – 40 per cent,” says TCL General Manager Shawn Talbot. “It’s taken us more than 10 years to build up to the point where we’re comfortable with our ice road construction and transportation business, now we can focus on using that same infrastructure and those same resources on the summer civil works side of our operation.”

Yellowknife-based Tli Cho Landtran has been perfecting its winter ice road construction and transport model since the early 2000s when it launched its first two big projects with Diavik Diamonds and BHP Billiton mines.

Since then TCL has carved out a specialty in both building the ice roads, which provide singular access to remote diamond mine sites across the northern Northwest Territories, as well as hauling freight across them. Some of their current clients include DeBeers Canada, Diavik Diamond Mines, and Dominion Diamond Mines.

It’s a difficult job with demanding work in some of the world’s harshest weather and punishing terrain. It requires highly-trained drivers and skilled construction crews to follow strict standards and protocols. Any mistakes in extreme subzero temperatures can quickly lead to life-threatening situations.

22 - winter5The stakes are high too. If a delivery deadline is missed and the cold-weather window expires, the winter road becomes impassible. The only alternative to deliver critical freight (like supplies or infrastructure) to mine sites is via airlifts, which can cost millions of dollars.

The diamond mine business in NWT began to expand rapidly about 10 years ago. When TCL first began working the ice road season, they would haul a few hundred loads annually. Now they have fine-tuned their processes and scaled up to become the largest ice road transportation provider. Last year they hauled 3,000 loads during the short 55-day season.

This success is due to a number of factors. The biggest is TCL’s focused understanding of how to safely maximize the winter road season, and how to work in all types of weather conditions. Secondly, being a small company, TCL has been able to offer clients highly dedicated service. To TCL, the mine company’s success is their own success. Finally, it has been the support and resources of TCL’s parent company, Landtran Systems, which helped them scale up to the size they are today.

Based in Western Canada, the Landtran Group of companies consists of diverse subsidiary business units who provide extensive reach and service across Canada, the United States, and Mexico. With more than 60 years of transportation and delivery experience, Landtran Systems’ versatility and international range has helped it secure its place as one of the largest integrated, regional distribution operations in Western Canada.

In fact, Landtran has strategically shaped its service offerings around the needs of its diamond mine clients, and since then has mainly only taken on work that complemented the seasonal demands of the ice roads. Landtran Systems has established steady “counter-seasonal” work throughout its business units to balance the company’s sustainability and even out revenue streams.

22 - Backhaul on the Ingrham Trail (9)But to date, TCL has been focused on building its winter road construction and transportation capacity, and hasn’t had the opportunity to counter that with summer work. Over the past few summers that all changed as the company began taking on civil works projects. These included a four-kilometre widening and reconstruction of the Ingraham Trail in NWT (part of a busy 79-kilometre stretch that provides access to the ice roads that lead to the diamond mines). TCL has also widened and reconstructed sections of Tibbitt-to-Contwoyto Winter Road, constructed a compost facility at the Yellowknife city landfill, and managed a gravel quarry. Crews are currently working on constructing a new loop at a local campground.

TCL purchased a civil works company in Yellowknife in 2005. At the time, the acquisition was originally required to support their growing winter road operations, but now TCL has been able to use that infrastructure to develop their civil construction capacity as the company works toward providing year-round work for their ice road construction crews and equipment.

Besides helping it earn a steadier stream of revenue, avoiding a seasonal shut down is also proving to be a great HR advantage for TCL. Attracting and retaining construction staff is a common and ongoing challenge for seasonal companies across Canada who are competing with the booming oil and gas and logging industries to attract labour. Being able to offer year-round work and a variety of different roles for employees helps TCL position itself as an employer of choice.

“Being able to do both the winter and summer has given us a really good ability to maintain our crews and equipment. It allows us to keep them busy year-round,” says Talbot. This means turnover is lower, which cuts down on the extensive training new employees must go through for the winter road construction season. Plus, the skills used during winter road construction are highly transferrable to off-season civil projects.

“When [employees] come from the winter road, the civil stuff is really a treat. They’re use to the harsh environment, working in minus 50 conditions. And a lot of the skills, equipment and knowledge needed are the same in the summer months.”

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