Washington ferries are running behind schedule this year more than they have in the past decade, with a consistent decline in on-time performance, according to an analysis of Washington State Ferries data.
Every summer, with 50% more passengers traveling by ferry, it is not unusual to see a dip in on-time performance from June to September, said spokesperson Ian Sterling.
“The higher volume of passengers inevitably affects the time taken to get everyone on board and ultimately the on-time performance,” he said, adding that this time of year often attracts first-time ferry travelers, including out-of-state visitors.
The delays are more pronounced this year, however, and passengers on the Anacortes/San Juans route are particularly feeling it, according to WSF data.
While this route usually records more delays than others, in June, nearly half of all sailings on this route ran behind schedule. This is a 40 percentage-point gap from WSF’s target to run on time for 95% of trips.
WSF attributes the lower on-time performance to a staffing shortage and a higher number of passengers on busy routes.
By and large, the timing of these delays is similar to traffic congestion on roads to and from Seattle. Like freeway rush hour, ferry passengers will face greater delays in the mornings and evenings, Sterling said.
On weekends, especially holiday weekends like Labor Day, passengers on popular tourist routes such as Anacortes/San Juans and Port Townsend/Coupeville are more likely to face delays on Thursday and Friday afternoon leaving the Seattle area and returning on Sunday and Monday afternoon.
An aging workforce
As of July this year, WSF had a 6% decline in staffing since 2019, when it was running at full capacity. There is a shortage of more than 100 people in the agency.
Hires in the last month have brought the gap down to 4%. Still, it will be some time before the new hires are fully trained to help plug staffing shortages.
“This isn’t a job you just do walking off the street,” Sterling said. That means a “sizable portion” of existing staff is training new hires, which affects how many people are available to run ferry services.
Currently WSF’s biggest staffing shortage is in the engine room — the department has 45 fewer engineers — a decline of over 10% from 2019, when it was operating at full capacity.
While there were several departures in November after Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, the current shortage is due to retirements and the 10 to 12 fleet personnel out each day due to active COVID cases, according to Sterling.
WSF’s slow replacement of its aging staff also extends to the deck crew, which is needed to run sailings. Since 2017, 66 captains and 24 mates have left WSF. Over 80% were retirements. As of August, WSF is staffed with 74 captains and 101 mates.
Route and vessel considerations, for both engine employees and deck officers, is also a factor, according to Sterling. Captains can’t sail every route in the system as they have to get certified by routes. Similarly, engine staff are assigned to specific boats or classes of boats and also can’t move between vessels in most circumstances.
“We could be overstaffed on specific routes or boats, but still short on others and aren’t able to move staff easily due to qualifications required,” he said.
A thinning fleet
In the next year, WSFs waning fleet size will further complicate service woes.
The 21 vessels WSF currently has on hand is the smallest fleet size in the past decade. After a decline in the average time a vessel is out for maintenance in 2020, the time out of service is trending upward again.
It takes 19 vessels to run full summer service and the two other vessels on hand play a key role when a ship is taken out of rotation for Coast Guard inspections and maintenance, like the Cathlamet ferry, which crashed near the Fauntleroy dock in West Seattle last month.
“This doesn’t leave enough vessels on the bench, so there are no spares,” Sterling said, adding that soon some of these vessels will be up for midlife upgrades.
Skipping upgrades is not really an option, he said. It will inevitably affect WSF’s ability to run full service as it did pre-pandemic.
For now, as long as no other vessel is taken out, it has vessels ready to deploy.
“They’re just sitting there, because we don’t have the manpower yet,” Sterling said.