CHOKEPOINTS

Washington ferries’ slow return to pre-pandemic service continues

Apr 5, 2022, 6:04 AM
ferries...
(Flickr Creative Commons)
(Flickr Creative Commons)

The slow return to full service continues on the Washington State Ferries as the agency tries to rebound from the pandemic.

The ferry system first returned pre-pandemic service to the San Juans. That happened before the end of the year. That was the priority. Now it’s time to start ramping back up around the system, starting with the bigger routes.  “Next up will be Seattle-Bainbridge, which we are trialing right now and hopefully get back to full time, two boat service on that route, the ferries’ Ian Sterling said.

The Bainbridge Island run is in the middle of a three-week trial. If it reaches 95% reliability over that time, it will be considered restored.

That’s not going to be easy to attain after a boat hit the “wing walls” on landing. That puts us down to just one slip at Colman dock.

And staffing issues continue to plague the system. Yesterday, the two earliest sailings on the Bainbridge run had to be canceled because there weren’t enough people to run the boats, and we’re in a similar situation today.  Sterling said staffing problems continue to be a huge problem, just one of many.

“Everybody knows the product isn’t great right now,” Sterling said.  “We don’t have enough people to sail the boats.  We don’t have enough boats, long term, to provide the service that we did pre-pandemic.  That’s really frustrating to customers.  It’s really morale-busting for our crews, and we want to get back to as close as we can to pre-pandemic service as possible.”

Washington ferry cancellations go ‘beyond COVID’: Report highlights systemic staffing issues

Where are we on the staffing issues?

Sterling says the entire maritime industry is facing a shortage of workers. We’ve heard that for years. Here are some of the numbers the ferry service released last week. It has 163 licensed captains and mates. It needs 200.  Overall, the ferry system is down an estimated 96 people, and Sterling said the agency is on a hiring spree, though it takes time to get new hires ready.  “It takes a little time from getting hired to getting them out on the boats, but we are aggressively pursuing folks and making that happen,” he said.  “We’ll continue to do that until service is made whole.”

Speaking of being made whole, Sterling said galley service should start returning soon.  “Providing things go smoothly, I would anticipate that you begin to see galley service restored, especially on routes where you have full service,” he said.

Though you might have heard Sterling tell me the same thing last year, but that was before several coronavirus surges.

There are some positive signs on the ridership front.

It is on a steady rise, though it started the year at just over 25,000 riders a day. It’s up to 44,000 riders a day now.

Pre-pandemic ridership at this point in 2019 was between 60-and-70,000 riders a day.

And as we have been talking about for months, it’s the daily walk-on passengers, especially on the Seattle-Bainbridge and Seattle-Bremerton routes, that have simply vanished.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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Washington ferries’ slow return to pre-pandemic service continues