Electrical problems were quickly fixed after the ferries Tacoma and Elwha stalled last weekend, but the fleet remains short-handed in the event breakdowns occur this summer.
Last weekend’s breakdown of the jumbo ferry Tacoma turned out to have a simple cause. The normal vibrations of the boat shook a wire loose.
“All they had to do was tighten down the screws,” said Lynne Griffith, chief of Washington State Ferries, in an interview.
Friday afternoon’s propulsion loss near Seattle, along with a Sunday morning failure on the Elwha in the San Juan Islands, raised questions about whether passengers are due for a summer of frustration, after several incidents of stalls and delays in 2014.
Not necessarily, said Griffith.
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The breakdowns were unrelated to each other, and to the July incident that forced the Tacoma to drop anchor off Bainbridge Island, then undergo a $1.8 million circuitry overhaul. So, there’s not some endemic problem waiting to pounce on the nation’s busiest ferry network.
But if a vessel does falter — the average vessel age is 33 years — the state doesn’t yet have spare ferries to fill the gap.
“We’re concerned, for the short term,” Griffith said.
On Friday, after tugboats pushed the Tacoma back to downtown Seattle’s Colman Dock with passengers aboard, ferry managers drafted the Issaquah to replace it. That meant removing the Issaquah from the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle, which in turn caused delays at Fauntleroy, in West Seattle.
The Tacoma returned to work at 5 p.m. Saturday, but not until after passengers in Seattle had waited an extra 75 minutes, for a crew change and a paramedic response to an ill passenger.
Some help for the fragile network arrives in June, when the 144-car Samish will enter the Anacortes-San Juan routes, though with new boats there’s a chance of early glitches, as with the new ferry Tokitae, which lost power between Clinton and Mukilteo in April and which required modification early in its service because some cars bottomed out on the ramps. In two years, the 144-car Chimacum is to be completed.
Griffith said she hopes lawmakers will fund another, bigger boat, to cover for breakdowns and urgent maintenance in the busiest corridors.
Last year, ferries missed 83 trips because of mechanical problems, according to the Gray Notebook, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s data-driven performance report. In all, there were 247 misses — the majority caused by low tides or weather — out of 40,436 total trips.
The on-time rate was 94.9 percent for the 12 months that ended in March, with the Bainbridge route below average, at 93.6 percent.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, says constituents didn’t complain to her, though she saw frustration on social media. She believes the system is moving in the right direction under Griffith, who took the job in September.
“I feel more confident about this summer than I did a year ago,” said Rolfes, who will receive an internal briefing Friday about the Tacoma.
Communication with passengers at the dock has improved, and lawmakers were notified when the stall happened, Rolfes said.
The Tacoma’s wiring vulnerability isn’t unusual for vessels, Griffith said. She said one interruption can cascade into a full power loss.
“My direction will be, we need a very specific process, to make sure we’re checking these on a regular basis,” she said.
In the 24-boat fleet, five vessels are currently unavailable for use.
The Chelan is being painted at Lake Union, while the Hiyu, Puyallup, Yakima and Tillicum are undergoing maintenance and inspection at Eagle Harbor.
“Our fleet of vessels is in operation 20 to 22 hours every day, so the window of opportunities for crews to do maintenance work is small,” Griffith said.
To navigate through a few years of shortages, the ferry system last year brought the Evergreen State, built in 1954 and rebuilt in 1988, out of retirement.