The Trans Labrador Highway: Not for Amateurs

Labrador is the mainland portion (and northern half) of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. While Labrador is more than twice the area of Newfoundland (269 073 km2), it only contains six percent of the province’s population (just under 27 000 people). Settlement is restricted to small towns along the Atlantic coast and to mining and hydroelectric communities in the southwest. Prior to 1992, the only way to access Labrador’s coast by vehicle, including Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the region’s largest town, was via ferry from either Newfoundland or the Labrador south coast. One could enter Labrador West (the mining towns of Labrador City and Wabush) from Quebec, but get no further, leaving a 526-km gap between Labrador City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay separating the two most populous towns of Labrador, and thus the eastern half of Labrador from the North American highway grid.

This gap was bridged in 1992 when Route 500, the main branch of the Trans Labrador Highway* (TLH), was completed between the two towns. It also served to tie in Churchill Falls, home of the world’s second-largest underground power generation project, to the provincial highway system. Churchill Falls is the only place to find roadside services along the main branch of the TLH, 238 km east of Labrador City and 288 km west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and only the stretches immediately adjacent to the two towns are paved (around 180 km). The section east of Churchill Falls is often better traversed by 4x4s due to washouts and can take 6-to-8 hours to travel. Needless to say, make sure you have all of your emergency gear in tow when you drive. This stretch, while harsh at times, is actually relatively typical of most highways traversing northern boreal forests in Canada, similar to many highways in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It’s the next section that causes the big grief.

The small network of roads connecting communities on the south coast of Labrador still had to be joined to the TLH, not to mention coastal ports in between such as Cartwright and Port Hope Simpson. As in Labrador West, there was a road coming in from the Quebec to the south coast to the historic Basque fishing town of Red Bay, where a ferry joins Newfoundland to Labrador. Joining this road to the TLH would finally allow residents of Labrador to drive directly to Newfoundland without having to leave the province and take a 2 000-km detour through Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Between 1999 and 2002, a 326 km-long highway (Route 510) was built between Red Bay and Cartwright. The first 86 km between Red Bay and Mary’s Harbour, however, was not built through the forest but was rather cut through exposed rock face. Essentially, artificial canyons were cut into the rock in order to contain the roadway. With no surrounding trees to protect from the brutal winds and snowdrifts, snow simply gets blown into the rock cuts until it matches the level of the surrounding surface, drowning the highway in snow and forcing snowploughs to perform the Herculean task of clearing them so that traffic can actually pass through.

The final 250-km gap was bridged in December 2009 when Route 530 from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to a junction with Route 510 87 km south of Cartwright was completed. The ferry connecting the two towns to each other and to Newfoundland was ceased this October.

phase3

The three phases of Trans Labrador Highway construction.

The highway isn’t just for locals trying to get out of town; it’s also for tourists trying to get in. The amount of traffic on the main TLH branch between Labrador City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay has been steadily increasing over the past 18 years, and now traffic into southern Labrador has done the same. The increase of traffic from the island of Newfoundland created major wait times this summer on the lone ferry joining the two halves of the province (the ferry formerly employed on the Cartwright route will be transferred to this one for 2011, but whether it can help relieve traffic pressure remains to be seen). Indeed, a large circle route has been created joining Labrador with Newfoundland, the Maritimes, and Quebec. And with fewer ferries and detours to deal with, the cost of living has gone down; prices for goods in Labrador West are now as cheap as or cheaper than on the island of Newfoundland.

The remoteness one encounters in driving the TLH, and the danger of being stranded, is certainly recognised by the Newfoundland and Labrador government. The government have put in place a rather unique solution: they have purchased 65 satellite phones that travellers can use free-of-charge while driving the highway with presentation of a valid driver’s license and/or credit card number for tracking. Drivers pick up a phone at a participating location (typically a hotel or municipal office) and drop it off at another participating location when they are done with it. If they get in trouble, assistance is just a phone call (and a couple hours beyond that, usually) away. The highway project hasn’t ended with completion of the link, either. Improvements on Route 500 for 2014 have been put to tender which will ensure over 80 percent of the road will be at a two-lane standard. Of course, the ultimate dream would be to have a fixed link between Labrador and Newfoundland, but the sparse population of Labrador combined with the 17.5 km distance across the Strait of Belle Isle would make such a link prohibitively expensive and economically unviable; a 2004 feasibility study pretty much closed any debate on that point. The ferry crossing the strait will probably be around for many, many years to come, and so will the endless traffic delays unless more routes or sailings are added.

The southern Labrador weather site Stormpost.com most likely has the best collection of winter TLH photographs on the Internet, including some of the infamous Route 510 rock cut sections covered in snow to the point of near-total invisibility: view galleries here, here, here, here, and here. It should be also be mentioned that Labrador in general is incredibly scenic once the snow melts (and if you’re a winter person like myself, while the snow’s around, too). Below, a flight over a portion of the highway in winter:

*It should be noted that the official government spelling does not include the hyphen between ‘Trans’ and ‘Labrador’, similar to the Trans Canada Highway.

Further Reading

Barney, R. (2010). Stormpost Photo Collection. Stormpost.com. Available at http://www.stormpost.com/photos/index.pl. Accessed 28 November 2010.

CBC News (2010).  Southern Labrador ferry waits frustrate travellers. 27 July 2010. Available at http://www.cbc.ca/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2010/07/27/southern-labrador-ferry-delays-727.html. Accessed 28 November 2010.

CBC News (2010). Lewisporte-Labrador ferry link shut down. 26 October 2010. Available at http://www.cbc.ca/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2010/10/26/lewisporte-labrador-ferry-106.html. Accessed 28 November 2010.

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador (2010). Additional Satellite Phones Now Available on Trans Labrador Highway. Available at http://www.releases.gov.nl.ca/releases/2010/tw/0218n02.htm. Accessed 28 November 2010.

McLeod, J. (2010). Trans-Labrador highway paves the way for economic development. The Aurora, 11 January 2010. Available at http://www.theaurora.ca/News/2010-01-11/article-1565427/Trans-Labrador-highway-paves-the-way-for-economic-development/1. Accessed 28 November 2010.

Muma, N. (2010). Trans-Labrador Highway. Available at http://www.tlhwy.com/. Accessed 28 November 2010.

Teed, D. (2010). Trans-Labrador Highway. Available at http://www.artistic.ca/dteed/labrador.htm. Accessed 28 November 2010.

Weatherstone, W. (2004). Photos of Snow on the Labrador Highway. The Diesel Gypsy. Available at http://www.thedieselgypsy.com/Labrador%20Snow.htm. Accessed 28 November 2010.

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