Friday, August 8, 2014

Washington State Ferries – working hard to keep you moving

by Broch Bender

You won’t see any of our 22-vessel team competing for maritime gold like some of their stouter cousins plying Puget Sound.

(photo courtesy of: Friends of

Our ships prefer the hard-working life of connecting communities and transporting goods day in and day out along our state marine highways.

(M/V Walla Walla at Colman Dock in Seattle)

Ferries by the numbers

  • 22.5 million riders and 10 million vehicles - What Washington State Ferries carries every year.
  • 7 days a week, 21 hours a day – The hours we’re on the job.
  • 1800 crew members, 450 departures a day from 20 terminals on 10 routes – That’s how we roll.

Even the best laid plans…

Let’s face it, the average age of our vessels is 38. Many are pushing 50 years old or more. Sometimes, no matter how careful we are to keep our vessels in working order, things can happen. And sometimes those things happen on multiple ferries at the same time!

What happens when we’re down a few good ferryboats?

Our fleet is designed to keep a full-service schedule even if one or two vessels are out of service. If more than two are out of service at the same time, we do what we can to restore service to as many customers as possible.

Moving ships or cancelling service is not a decision that we take lightly.

We try to match the largest available vessels to the busiest routes. For example, in July, when the 202-car Tacoma lost power on the busiest commuter route in the system (Bainbridge Island-Seattle) we moved the 202-car Puyallup from the Edmonds-Kingston route to  make up the difference.


We also ask ourselves, “Is there an alternate route?” Ferry service saves commuters time by zipping across the water instead of driving around the long way. In some cases, however the long way takes hours to drive, or is a non-existent route as in driving to the San Juan Islands.

During times of reduced service, we prioritize active vessels to ferry routes that don’t have viable alternate ways to get to a destination.

Maintenance – Essential to keeping ferries on the move

Throughout the day – Crews constantly monitor systems, perform routine and preventative maintenance and keep the ship in ship-shape.

On a weekly basis – More of the above, including tending to long-term projects such as tearing apart an engine for deep cleaning.

Quarterly inspections– Four times a year the U.S. Coast Guard checks all of the safety and life-saving equipment on the ferry to make sure it is in working order. The inspection also requires crew members to perform passenger safety and emergency rescue drills like the one pictured below.

Annual inspections– Just like a checkup at the doctor’s office, the ferry is evaluated from end to end, including the hard-working engine room. If the U.S. Coast Guard finds anything out of order, we tie-up the ferry and make repairs before returning it to normal service.

The “2 and 5” – Every two and five years, we take the ferry out of the water for a few weeks for a U.S. Coast Guard inspection. The looksee includes everything inspectors would normally comb through during the annual, plus the exterior hull and propulsion system.

(Above: crews practice lifesaving drills during an annual inspection)

Painting O’ the ferry – Alas, when there’s enough funding in our maintenance coffers, every few years we carefully blast off the old paint and apply a couple new layers of white and WSDOT green.

(Photo of the freshly painted TOKITAE at Vigor Shipyard in Seattle. )

The painting of the ferries guards our vessels from the ravages of rust so they can be better prepared to take on years of winter rainstorms.

Fleet feet – The crew that makes it happen
Our ferries aren’t complete without its dedicated crew. 

(A WSF deckhand connects the passenger bridge
to the dock at the Seattle terminal)

Some employees work an 8 or 9 hour shift several times a week, others, like those in the engine room, work a 12-hour shift (day or night shift) for seven days in a row. They have a week off before returning to work the opposite shift for another week. Crew members alternate between day and night shift every other week.

All told, our 1800-person staff is just enough to cover all of the positions required to keep our fleet operating at full service. However, just like the rest of us, sometimes crew members get sick, or stuck in traffic, or have to attend to an emergency and are late getting to work.

Many traditional workplace environments can accommodate flexible schedules and last minute emergencies.

At Washington State Ferries, if every assigned crew member is not at their stations at the start of the shift, the shift can’t begin.

Crewing the vessels
We’ve got schedulers working around the clock filling regular service shifts and fill-in shifts for sea-going employees on vacation or at a medical appointment. 

Nonetheless, filling vacant shifts within our fleet is challenging, particularly during the peak summer travel season. We are doing the best we can with the resources we have, including providing crew members with additional training so they are qualified to fill a wider variety of shifts.

First mates to oilers, it’s the norm around here to work overtime.

If you ever wondered what it takes to run a ferry boat, here's an overview of work stations, duties and pay rates.  This example is for the Issaquah class, the hardest working boat in the ferry business. 

Keeping it all in perspective
Your state ferry system has an overall service record of 99% reliability across the board. While we feel that is a strong record, it doesn’t minimize the real impacts that people like you experience when we do have incidents, and we sincerely apologize for that. We know we've been having some challenges this summer and we appreciate you bearing with us.

Interesting fact: Most U.S. airline carriers boast a 78% reliability.

Looking to the future
We’re on course to provide the best service we can with the resources we have. Right now we’re in the thick of building the Samish, our second of three new 144-car ferries.

Starting in January 2015, we’re expanding Save A Spot, our vehicle reservation service, to the San Juan Islands route. 

We are committed to getting you where you need to go safely. A big thank you goes out to all of our customers.  We appreciate the opportunity to serve you. 


Anonymous said...

Very nice blog. :)

The Geezer said...

Well spun. Nice job, Bender, though the wage graphic could be larger, even if you click on it, for us Geezers.

The Geezer has spaketh

Anonymous said...

This all sounds very nice, but shows the systemic failure in the system. There are many positions, said to be "working overtime", when many do not work efficiently or with an attitude of service. Having ridden on several ferries recently with long waiting lines, only to find the ferry leaving with less than a 50% load due to a ticket booth line being closed during peak weekend times. The "workers" did not seem to care that many were left in line. I find the spin in the blog to not match reality and to be insulting to those of us who are paying increased fares for a "service" where the "workers" are more concerned about their pay than the public they are paid to serve. The title should be "hardly working" rather than "working hard." Yes, we have offered suggestions throughout the years and they fall on deaf ears.

The Geezer said...

Well,Anon is also right. Since this is "casual" labor, no expectation of 40 hours, why not hire enough folks to reduce OT, particularly at an attractive pay rate for basically unskilled folks?

It is ture that the workers seem more interested in their pay than serving the public, often, too often.

The Governor's labor negotiators need to step on the unions when they "negotiate" their contracts.

Since they can't strike, who should have the upper hand, paying them fairly, but eliminating the work rules that run up costs.

The usually affable, but not always, Geezer has spaketh.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so much for the college education and software engineering career, I need to work for WSF. We know where those increased ticket prices are going because it's not maintenance.

Anonymous said...

Suggestions do not fall on deaf ears, suggestions are taken seriously.

Anonymous said...

Sour grapes. Another case of "hardly knowing" what you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Sour grapes. Another case of "hardly knowing" what you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Put a bigger boat back on the Edmonds/Kingston run. Some ticket takers are rude. Don't say anything. Don't even greet you with a smile.

The Geezer said...

Well, suggestions on a blog are taken seriously? Since when.

I go to the source, if I have wisdom to share. Is anon above a WSF employee?


The amoeba said...

I have seldom encountered ferry workers who were anywhere near as rude as the customers they serve ... customers who seem to think that ferry workers should be available at the snap of the fingers 24/7/365, to work Jesus miracles at minimum wage - who think, in other words, that ferry workers are school teachers. As if WSF Ferries wasn't in competition with the merchant marine (higher pay, fewer hassles) for sailors.

I would appreciate it if WSF would post, on its web page, a listing of what boats are down, why they're down, and an ETA for their return to service.

Anonymous said...

They do Amoeba ...

Ferry Service Impacts and Schedule Adjustments

The Geezer said...

I believe posting that chart(s) is new. Never seen or heard of it.

They may have known it, but didn't share, previously.

Bender? T/F

Marta Coursey said...

We just created the new chart to help folks understand how we crew the ferries.

the amoeba said...

Thanks, Marta, the new chart is very helpful. Still a bug or two in it though, I don't reckon the Walla Walla is really heading to join the Sealth and Cathlamet on the Bremerton run this weekend, leaving the Spokane all by its lonesome.

Anonymous said...

"Your state ferry system has an overall service record of 99% reliability across the board."

Skipping runs to "reset" the schedule is another way to lie with statistics rather than provide service.

Due to two-boat service delays, the 8:15 pm sailing from Vashon to Southworth and the 8:35 pm sailing from Southworth to Vashon, have been cancelled to reset the schedule. The next sailing from Vashon to Southworth will be at 8:55 pm.

Due to two-boat service delays, the 9:20 pm sailing from Fauntleroy to Vashon and the 9:55 pm return from Vashon to Fauntleroy, have been cancelled to reset the schedule. The next sailing from Fauntleroy to Vashon and Southworth will be an early 10:20 pm, departing at 10:05 pm.

"Heavy Traffic" is not an excuse for missing runs. Those times are when the crew needs to step up and act like service is important, not to shrug it off. Higher fares are charged during the summer, do these go towards providing service?

Is anyone going to show some responsibility rather than provide more excuses? This is the time to make the utilization resources more efficient.

Anonymous said...

@The Geezer --
They've posted an updated 3-4 month maintenance and impacts shedule for many years now - ever since the Steel Electrics were pulled - and the chart's always been pretty easy to locate on the website. Updated every 1-2 weeks, it seems.

Anonymous said...

We've got a lot of misinformed people around here. Let's start with "why not hire more people?" More get hired every single year. Very few make it through their first year. In the Summer, they get decent hours and are able to make ends meet, even with schedules that would test the patience of saints. It's the rest of the year when they receive no hours and are "on-call" with no income that forces them to quit. Your bills are year round, so are theirs. Want to fix manning issues, make sure that every single dock, and every single boat has hours available for on-call personnel year round. That will never happen though, because the vast majority of people working for WSF don't receive many hours of vacation a year, only the people who've been there for 4+ decades, and those who do, only take vacation in the Summer. Hours are needed year-round in order to keep employees. Could you work where you work when you only get called for a day or two of work a week (and the shift you work is a four hour shift)? This problem will not be corrected with the current policies of management.

"Pay them fairly", this is certainly a joke right? WSF employees make a fraction of what their private equivalents do. The Governor knows this, the Congress knows this, and everyone in management knows this, as do everyone working for WSF. Attrition in the ranks of WSF employees stems from loss to other private companies that pay better wages, and have better benefits (primarily time off). Of course, WSF employees will not be given private wage equivalents. The State continues to tell all of its workers that there's absolutely zero funding available for quality-of-life improvements. There's also a growing percentage of people who are dissatisfied with the lack of cost of living increases in wages. SeaTac puts minimum wage to $15 an hour. That sounds like a lot until you go to the grocery store and spend over $500 on a single cart of groceries (provided you want the quality foods). Gasoline is outrageously expensive and only gets worse. When I started driving (admittedly a day or two ago) gasoline was .89 a gallon! WSF employees are required to drive long distances in many cases just to do their jobs, and get paid a laughable sum to do so. WSF employees don't get paid well at all, when considering how little buying power the dollar has these days. The quality of life as a result, declines every single year.

"Put a bigger boat back on the Edmonds/Kingston run." This is an issue the Puget Sound will face over and over again, and the politicians will continue to keep their eyes closed to this issue. What are they doing? Edmonds actually puts more vehicles on boats than Bainbridge does, and will continue to do so. The answer is simple. Very large passenger only boats (and not like the dingy's they used to use for that purpose) for the Seattle Bainbridge run need to be considered. The way I see it, if they are filling 2000 seat boats now, then we need to have at least 4000 seat boats to accommodate now and into the future. Think ahead, not in the present.

Then there's the issues of ferry terminals. Anacortes has been promised a new terminal for decades. They have been denied one for just as long, even though it's incredibly needed. Mukilteo was undersized for 1950's traffic, let alone todays traffic. Mukilteo has also been promised a new dock. Absolutely nothing has been done beyond "studies". Colman dock has serious issues as well, and will likely need a rebuild in the next decade or so. There's lots of infrastructure problems (to include aging boats), that the State refuses to address beyond putting a band-aid on it. The State is pumping money into new highways and all the infrastructure that entails, but is woefully negligent when it comes to the state of WSF terminals and vessels. When the State seems to be against WSF employees, rather than a proud steward, one must question leadership and it's endgame.

Anonymous said...

@"We've got a lot of misinformed people around here" sounds like a WSF employee with the attitude of having problems that cannot be solved. That old approach of explaining away why everything has been thought of and the answers that explain why it can't be done will only continue the same old problems. Surely, we can get someone that can do better than offer this old tired explanation.

You can change personnel policies to provide both sufficient work hours and sufficient time off so employees are refreshed and eager to provide service to their customers.

You could even raise the pay scale if the ticket sellers, ticket takers, dock side loaders, boat side loaders, etc. could be the same person. There is plenty of rest time between tasks. Why do we need a separate person for each of those?

We could afford newer boats if we didn't have the misinformed "build in Washington" rule that sounds good but adds years of costs to each new boat. We could more easily afford better dock maintenance if we didn't have the costly sales tax on transportation facilities (thanks to Congressman McDermott when he was at the state level) or the onerous wage and work rules that further inflate the costs.

Making excuses to the "misinformed" hasn't solved the problem yet, so it is time to think outside the docks.

Anonymous said...

Skipping a run to reset the schedule does not replace the lost capacity, it makes it worse. Sending a WSF Alert after the fact does not help the traveler. The following alert was not helpful on either account.

Due to heavy traffic delays, the 3:50 pm sailing from Vashon to Fauntleroy and the 4:20 pm return sailing to Vashon have been cancelled to reset the schedule. The 4:45 pm Vashon to Fauntleroy departure will sail on time. Updates will occur as more information becomes available.

This alert was sent on 8/23/2014 at 4:33PM to subscribers of the Fauntleroy (West Seattle) / Vashon / Southworth route.

John said...

Heavy traffic causing the boats to fill does not by itself result in a no go. Only skipped sailings to reset schedule and other issues. You miss your boat because it's full that's on you for now showing up earlier. That being said it is reliable day to day. Just when we need it the most is when it breaks down.

John said...

They already have the biggest boats available on that run. The jumbo 2 boats are on Bainbridge because they need them more. They haul more traffic than any other route. But Edmonds kingston gets two jumbos as well. So they are only down 14 cars or so off of their Bainbridge friends.

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