Mar 7, 2023 - News

Ferry glitches show fragility of service restoration plan

Cars driving off of a ferry.

A Washington State Ferries vessel on the San Juan Islands route. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Just as Washington State Ferries (WSF) released its updated timeline for restoring service, a frustrating weekend full of delayed and canceled runs shows how easily chronic staffing shortages can upend the system's delicately-balanced plan.

Driving the news: Half the sailings on the Kingston/Edmonds route were canceled this past weekend when "a lot of people called out sick," WSF spokesperson Ian Sterling told Axios. He said WSF is looking into whether there was a bug going around.

  • With a shortage of trained workers and an aging fleet, small matters can become a major inconvenience.
  • "We were getting back to where we're supposed to be and then we had a really tough, glitchy weekend," he said.

Why it matters: The routes are a critical part of the state's highway system. Ferries are not only essential for the thousands of residents with daily commutes. For island communities, they provide the only access to goods and services, including gas, groceries, medical care and even school.

State of play: During the pandemic, plummeting ridership and chronic staffing shortages forced the ferry system to cut sailings on every route. Service is being restored based on ridership, crew availability and whether a community has other travel alternatives, WSF said.

  • Pre-pandemic levels of service have been restored to four routes: Anacortes/San Juan Islands, Seattle/Bainbridge, Mukilteo/Clinton and Edmonds/Kingston.
  • For the Fauntleroy/Vashon Island/Southworth triangle, WSF expects to begin trialing full weekday three-boat service in early April and operating the full weekly schedule by fall 2023 while Bremerton will have to wait until October at the earliest.
  • Port Townsend/Coupeville will remain on one-boat service until spring 2024. The route to Sidney, BC is canceled until at least 2030.

By the numbers: Riders are returning, but with an aging and retiring workforce, the system is struggling to attract new recruits amidst a global shortage of maritime workers.

  • WSF hired 202 fleet personnel in 2022, but with 42 retirements and 99 separations for other reasons, that’s a net gain of only 61 new employees.
  • As of last month, the ferry system was still short 35 captains and mates, 44 deck staff, 15 engineers and eight oilers. Eighty-one additional captains and mates are expected to retire by 2027.

What's next: Six of WSF's 21 vessels are over 40 years old and five are over 50 years old. And while WSF received $1.6 billion during the 2022 legislative session to buy four hybrid-electric ferries and build its labor force, that's not going to help right away.

  • When something breaks during the busy summer season, there's probably going to be a service cut, Sterling said. And that's likely to be the reality for a while, he said.

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