Washington State Ferries released its Service Contingency Plan January 4, 2024. The main change from the previous Service Restoration Plans, is WSF will be operating with a base of 15 vessels. Four will be in the San Juans, other routes will see their number of vessels reduced.
The Service Contingency Plan explains current staffing and vessel availability and how each will be improved by new programs to recruit, hire, train, and retain employees, and for vessels, a new build program. It also details how WSF will add service when it has the boats and crewing availability to do so, without specific timelines rendered impossible by the dynamics of crewing attrition and maintaining aging vessels.
With an estimated shortfall of 21,000 mariners worldwide, this is not just a WSF issue. BC Ferries, the Alaska Marine Highway System and the Massachusetts Steamship Authority are all canceling sailings due to crewing. And importantly, BC Ferries and other international ferry systems can hire crew from other nations, something U.S. ferry systems are precluded from doing by the 1920 Jones Act.
The goals of the Service Contingency Plan are to:
• Provide a measure of predictability about service WSF will be able to operate for the next four-to-five years.
• Be transparent about decisions, considerations, and priorities when service adjustments are necessary; and how WSF will manage unplanned service disruptions.
• Provide consistency in service to enhance reliability for customers.
• Outline how WSF will communicate with customers, community members, and other partners.
WSF is limited by both crew and vessel availability:
• Crewing - As the result of new programs requested by Governor Inslee and funded by the legislature, WSF expects crewing levels to continue to increase over the next 18-24 months. This will increase reliability and allow for crewing more vessels. However, with a global shortage of mariners affecting ferry systems around the world, cancellations due to crewing, while decreasing, will continue. See page four of the Service Contingency Plan for further details.
• Vessels - In 2015, WSF had 24 vessels; WSF’s fleet now consists of 21 vessels. This reduction in fleet size, combined with an aging fleet, means WSF generally has no spare vessels available. In 2023, the legislature changed state law to allow WSF to expand its new vessel build program out of state, which should allow new vessels to be added to the system more quickly. Even with these changes, the first new vessel likely won’t enter service until 2028.
WSF’s new build team are working to adjust the process to the new legislative direction and expect a “Request to Bid” to go out in the spring, with a contract to build at least the first of five new vessels signed by summer.
In the meantime, WSF’s Vessels department is focused on preservation and maintenance with new funding, which will help us increase reliability of the existing fleet. With a fleet ranging from five- to 64- years-old, in service 20+ hours a day, there will be disruptions, but WSF is doing what it can to lessen them.
Operating full service on every route requires 19 vessels in the summer, 18 in the spring and fall “shoulder” seasons (generally Mother’s Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day) and 17 in the late fall/winter/early spring. Throughout 2023, WSF operated with 14-16 vessels in service for extended periods of time. Due to the increasing age of the fleet and a long history of deferred vessel maintenance, WSF believes planning for a baseline of 15 vessels in service, with up to 17 available for portions of the year, is the most reasonable projection for the next four years. With limited vessel availability, WSF will be unable to operate full service until new vessels are constructed and delivered.
Until both new vessels and sufficient crew are available, WSF can reliably operate 15 vessels in service as a baseline.
As such, vessels would be assigned to provide the following service:
• Anacortes/San Juan Islands – Four vessels, including the Interisland (No Sidney service)
• Port Townsend/Coupeville – One vessel, year-round
• Mukilteo/Clinton – Two vessels
• Edmonds/Kingston – Two vessels
• Seattle/Bremerton – One vessel
• Seattle/Bainbridge – Two vessels
• Fauntleroy/Southworth/Vashon – Two vessels
• Point Defiance/Tahlequah – One vessel
There will be times when WSF has the available vessels and crewing to provide additional service above this 15-boat baseline – temporarily – on one or more unrestored routes, prioritized in this order:
1. Add a third vessel at Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth.
2. Add a second vessel at Seattle/Bremerton.
3. Add a second vessel (shoulder/summer seasons) at Port Townsend/Coupeville.
At times when vessel and/or crew availability is not projected to be consistent over an entire season, additional service may be unscheduled, with a route operating on an alternate schedule. WSF will operate additional scheduled service on a route when projected vessel and crew availability allows for doing so for an entire season. See page nine of the Service Contingency Plan for further details.
Approach to unplanned service disruptions
If a vessel unexpectedly goes out of service, WSF’s priority is the safety of our passengers and our crew. WSF will consider moving vessels around the fleet to cover prioritized service needs, but in general, for the first 24 hours, no vessels would be moved. The exception is for the Fauntleroy/ Vashon/Southworth and Seattle/Bremerton routes, which are already on significantly reduced service. See page 10 of the Service Contingency Plan for further details.
If a vessel unexpectedly goes out of service, WSF’s first priority is the safety of our passengers and our crew. If a vessel breaks down in transit, our focus is first moving it to a dock as soon as possible so that passengers can disembark. Vessel crew work very hard to identify the cause of the problem. Vessel maintenance crews are often dispatched from WSF headquarters and the Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility to help troubleshoot the problem. We also notify the USCG so that they can assess the situation.
Whether WSF can restore service depends on a number of variables, including the nature of the problem, whether WSF has parts available for repair or must purchase them elsewhere, whether the repair will require drydock space, whether drydock space is available and more. If it is determined the issue is severe and will last more than a day, WSF will consider moving vessels around the fleet to cover prioritized service needs.
In general, during the first day following a vessel being taken out service, the route where the vessel is assigned will operate without that vessel. The reasons for this are twofold:
• WSF needs time to make an assessment as to whether repairs will last more than one day. Often, vessels can be repaired the same day.
• It is a logistical challenge to move a vessel the same day, especially if it is a mechanical breakdown and occurs on a route far from Eagle Harbor. WSF needs time to assemble deck crews to move vessels to new routes and our customers need advance notice of schedule changes to plan accordingly.
There is one notable exception to the general rule that vessel reassignments will not occur on the first day of an unplanned vessel breakdown:
• WSF will restore service as quickly as possible on routes already on reduced service. On the Seattle/ Bremerton and Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth routes where service has already been reduced, it is necessary to maintain service to ensure essential transportation connectivity and not strand passengers. This may require same-day vessel moves and a reduction in service on other routes.
While the Point Defiance/Tahlequah and Port Townsend/Coupeville routes operate with single-vessel service, WSF will not immediately restore those routes if their vessel is taken out of service.
The Port Townsend/Coupeville route requires a Kwa-di Tabil-class vessel, and one may not be immediately available or close to the route. WSF would need time to determine when and how to restore service to that route.
The Point Defiance/Tahlequah route is both somewhat distant and a suitable relief vessel may not be available. WSF will attempt to rearrange sailing schedules on multi-destination routes with more than two vessels.
In the San Juan Islands, alternate schedules are available that allow WSF to reassign existing vessels to cover important connections to island communities even when one of the route’s vessels is out of service.
In general, on the second day after a vessel has been taken out of service and when a relief vessel is available, the relief vessel will be put into service. Due to limited crew availability, WSF’s ability to shuffle vessel assignments is limited, and provided it can work the route, the relief vessel would likely be directly substituted for the missing vessel. If it cannot, then the relief vessel would be assigned to another route and a vessel would be taken from that other route, often resulting a cascading impact on multiple routes as vessels are moved to cover service needs.
When a relief vessel is not available, WSF must make difficult decisions about reallocating service. To do this, WSF takes into consideration a number of factors, including:
• Minimum Service. A minimum of one vessel needs to remain on any given route to maintain basic transportation connections.
• Alternative Routes. WSF considers whether an impacted route has an alternative route via another ferry or a drive-around/bridge-access detour. This also includes the status of service on nearby routes (i.e. whether a potential detour route is already on reduced service).
• Customer Impact/Ridership. WSF considers how many people use the route, its utilization rate and mix of traffic. On routes with higher commuter traffic, a service disruption on a weekend is more tolerable than a service disruption on a weekday. On some routes serving recreational destinations, it is often more crucial to maintain full capacity on weekends.
• Special Events. Community and sporting events, or other high-travel events may prioritize one route over another to address specific circumstances (e.g., Seahawks or Mariners games, summer festivals).
• Reservations. WSF’s current vehicle reservation system does not allow it to redistribute reservations to other sailings. WSF may temporarily adjust the reservation system’s business and operational rules to address the issue until normal service is restored and resulting traffic impacts are mitigated, but cancelling a customer’s reservation that they’ve planned on in advance has widespread impacts. To the extent possible, WSF will prioritize travel for customers holding a reservation for any sailings during the service day over customers traveling from the same terminal without a reservation.
• Vessel Capacity. The capacity of vessels to carry vehicles and passengers based on demand.
• Resources. Crew availability and watch schedules, availability and proximity of maintenance resources (Eagle Harbor, drydock).
• Other Impacts. Terminal construction work, nearby highway projects, etc.
• Duration of Disruption and Cumulative Impacts. How long the disruption is expected to occur coupled with whether a route has experienced other service disruptions recently or is projected to. WSF tries to fairly spread the impact of downsizings and service disruptions systemwide.
In the event WSF cannot operate its “baseline” level of service with 15 vessels and must reduce service even more, it will prioritize routes already on reduced service and then consider ridership, service performance, availability and directness of travel alternatives, and vessel and crew availability when making decisions on which routes to downsize.
Customer Information and Service Disruption Communications
To allow customers to plan their travel, WSF works hard to communicate any service disruptions to the traveling public and to the broader community. WSF shares service information and context around service disruptions and provides travel information in several ways.
• Text or Email Alerts: Bulletins or rider alerts are sent to customers who have subscribed for this service at http://bit.ly/WSFalerts. Customer service web agents are on staff from 4:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. to send out alerts. At most times of day there is usually only a single staff member posting bulletins, so they are unable to provide real-time travel information for all routes. In the overnight hours, WSF operations staff can send out limited rider alerts if needed.
• Customer Contact Center: Customer Service is open daily from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. and can be reached by calling 206-464-6400 or 888-808-7977, or by dialing 5-1-1 from within the state of Washington. Agents are also available to respond to emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• WSDOT App and Online Travel Tools: The WSDOT app includes ferry schedules, real-time maps and service bulletins. WSF also provides several trip planning tools which customers find particularly useful during periods of reduced service including:
º VesselWatch, a real-time map showing the position and status of every vessel in the fleet
• Social and Traditional Media: Rider alerts automatically post on the WSF website and on WSF’s X (formerly known as Twitter) account. Additionally, WSF’s communications team monitors social media accounts Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.to 5 p.m. and post more detailed information and answer customer questions about service impacts and disruptions. They staff a 24/7 media hotline and contact media outlets as needed to share details on breaking news.
• Emails to Elected Officials and Key Stakeholders: For major service impacts, WSF sends emails to affected legislators, local elected officials, and Ferry Advisory Committee representatives so they can share information with their constituents and fellow community members.
• Highway Signs and Information: Customer service staff work with WSDOT highway operations to update messages on the Highway Advisory Radio System (HARS) and the Variable Message Systems (VMS) that are accessible from state routes leading to ferry terminals.
• WSF Weekly Update Newsletter: WSF sends out a weekly newsletter that often provides more in-depth information about vessel and crew availability constraints, past and future service disruptions and sailing schedule changes. Customers can view each newsletter and subscribe to the Weekly Update online.