Breaking records in Alaska's ferry industry

With construction well underway on two of the largest vessels ever built in Alaska, the state’s ferry business looks bright. Captain Michael Neussl from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities speaks to Lindsay James

Breaking records in Alaska's ferry industry
Construction of the ACFs is already well underway at Vigor Industrial's yard

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

It was back in 2014 that Governor Sean Parnell announced that the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and Vigor Industrial had reached a final US$101 million agreement to construct two Alaska Class Ferries (ACF) at Vigor Alaska in Ketchikan – the largest project of its kind to be completed entirely in state.

“The ferries are intended to replace one of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s (AMHS) three original mainline vessels that were constructed in 1963 when the AMHS was established,” explains Captain Michael Neussl, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. “The project is entirely funded by the state, which means we can keep Alaska’s dollars at work in Alaska.”

At 280 feet long and with capacity for up to 300 passengers and 53 standard vehicles, the two ferries – which were recently named Tazlina and Hubbard after Alaskan glaciers – will be the largest ships ever built in the state. Each ferry will feature bow and stern doors for quicker loading and unloading, fully enclosed car decks and controllable pitch propellers to maximise manoeuvrability and efficiency.

Although they won’t be complete until 2018, significant progress has already been made. “In November 2016, the front half of Tazlina was moved out of the assembly hall at the Ketchikan Shipyard to provide room to begin constructing the vessel’s aft half,” Neussl comments. “Tazlina is expected to be delivered to AMHS in spring 2018 and Hubbard at the end of 2018.”

A number of design considerations have been made to ensure the ferries will be able to sail in the Northern Lynn Canal, and that passengers will remain comfortable in rough waters.

“The ACFs were designed to exceed 99% sailing frequency for all identified routes,” says Neussl. “Seakeeping analysis of the hull design has estimated the passenger comfort to be similar to the comfort level of Taku. This is expected to be achieved by centrally locating passenger accommodations, and incorporating a hull and bow that are designed to minimise spray generation and forebody slamming.”

AMHS also ‘tank tested’ a to-scale model version of the ACF design to further analyse the seakeeping ability and to make design modifications to further improve the passenger comfort level during inclement weather. “However, AMHS also recognises that extreme weather events do occur and, as with all AMHS vessels, the ACF must operate under the limits defined as safe for both passengers and vessel,” adds Neussl.

The passenger amenities will be similar to AMHS mainline vessels in that they will have multiple decks, an observation lounge, a designated quiet area, a dedicated area for food and beverages and an aft solarium. Food will be served in a food court-type environment with select cold and hot food options available during the majority of the voyage. In addition, hot water and a microwave will be available for passengers who opt to bring their own food and wish to heat or cook their food onboard the ferry. The ACF are designed to operate as day boats, therefore they will not have staterooms for passengers or crew.

The project is just one part of AMHS’s vision for the future. “The priority to improve service and enhance revenue generation involves establishing a stable funding source for the system from year to year,” Neussl explains. “Budget fluctuations tied to the annual state budgeting process and various ship maintenance projects cause year to year schedule variations that impact ridership and system usage.”

AMHS is also adjusting the tariff structure to make it equitable, fair and logical on all routes. “We plan to implement peak and off-peak fare seasons and limited discounts to encourage ridership,” Neussl says. “As a predominantly state-funded public transportation system, AMHS seeks to improve its farebox recovery rate from the current 33% by increasing revenue while controlling costs.”

The organisation has also completed several ferry terminal improvements over the past year, including the replacement of the City of Kodiak Pier 1 facility. It has also reconstructed the Haines Ferry Terminal to increase passenger vehicle staging and replaced the mooring structure with a mooring dolphin and fender system. Plus, two new passenger waiting facilities have been added to the Kake and Angoon ferry terminals. Neussl says that completion of the Chignik Public Dock is expected in early 2017.

“AMHS also has plans in place to modify and rehabilitate the Skagway Ferry Terminal in late 2017,” he concludes. “Other near future terminal projects include replacing the Prince Rupert, British Columbia ferry terminal, upgrades and improvements to the Tenakee Springs ferry terminal, upgrades and modifications to the Gustavus ferry terminal, and modifications to the Haines Ferry Terminal to accommodate the new ACFs. Outside of the ACF and Tustumena replacement projects, AMHS has plans in place to repower Matanuska and upgrade the ship’s systems. This project is expected to begin in autumn 2017.”

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Lindsay James
By Lindsay James
Wednesday, July 26, 2017