There hasn’t been a dull day since Patty Rubstello took over from Amy Scarton as assistant secretary for the ferries division of Washington State Department of Transportation in January 2021. The pandemic has left a deep mark on Washington State Ferries (WSF), both in terms of ridership and staff turnover – a worldwide phenomenon in the transport sector.
Remote working remains the new normal in Washington and according to WSF’s last projection, it will take around five years before the ridership is back to pre-Covid level (close to 24 million passengers), making WSF one of the world’s leading ferry operators. In 2020, passenger numbers plummeted by 41.4 per cent to 13.9 million before improving in 2021 to reach 17.2 million. The 2022 ridership forecast is on track to be similar to 2021 as the USA’s largest ferry system has been marred by staff shortages, which has resulted in delayed and cancelled sailings.
“Covid-related crewing challenges mean that we don’t have enough staff to provide all of our services, so we’ve had to scale them back,” explains Rubstello. “We are actively trying to recruit and train up staff so that we can get back to full service.
In 2020, we sent home our senior staff who were considered ‘high risk’, which initially curtailed our service, and then people were contracting Covid and we weren’t able to recruit additional staff due to difficulties with training.
Last year, our governor decided that all state employees had to be vaccinated and there was a sizeable proportion of our staff who didn’t want to be inoculated, so we lost 130 people overnight in mid-October. Although it doesn’t seem like 130 people out of a total of nearly 2,000 is a lot, all of them were licensed officers with multiple credentials and years of experience at sea and you can’t just pluck that type of person off the street.”
WSF requires all captains to have pilotage [exemption] which takes quite a significant amount of time to obtain, says Rubstello. “Even if we can find a captain from a cruise ship or an oil tanker, they still have to obtain their pilotage before they can actually captain our ferries.”
On a positive note, the jobs offered by WSF are fairly attractive. “Unlike in the merchant navy, our officers and crew can go home every day,” explains Rubstello. “They get a stable lifestyle and because of that, people want to work for us. Yet, the pilotage remains a stumbling block – it can take eight to 12 months to get it.
“When coming into this role in January 2021, it shocked me that WSF didn’t pay its staff to get trained. Instead, captains had to pay themselves to obtain the pilotage and also had to complete training in their own time. Nowhere else in our agency did we ever do this. We knew if we wanted people to stay with us, we had to pay for their training and that’s one of the significant things we’ve changed.”
Staff shortages will remain critical in the longer term as 45 to 50 per cent of WSF’s employees are now close to retirement. “For this reason, we need a better system to rise people through the ranks as we will start losing more of our most senior folk,” says Rubstello, underlining that workforce diversity is paramount. “We are very much a white, male-dominated organisation but we need to attract people from all different spectrums into our workforce. It’s really a big focus for us to attract people from different walks of life. So, we need to change our culture as once people are here, we want them to stay.”
When asked if a lack of licensed staff may accelerate WSF’s implementation of automation technology, Rubstello reveals that it is something the company plans to consider. “One of our staff just shared an article about this concept as we are in the process of starting a procurement for five new vessels,” she says. “The question is should we be making sure our vessels can accommodate it in the future or looking for stuff that we can start putting into the new ships as they are being built? It’s still early days though as we’re just starting to scratch the surface.”
Building anew is typically a very slow process in the USA because ships must be built domestically. “Washington has a state law that requires us to have our vessels built within our state,” says Rubstello. “We can only build outside the state of Washington and go to other yards within the USA when quotations are over five per cent above our estimate, which is $200 million per ship. We are going through this procurement process as we speak.”
As standardisation is key to keeping maintenance costs down, the new 110.41-metre by 25.35-metre vessels will be a repeat order of the successful one-size-fits-all Olympic-class quartet, delivered by Vigor Industrial between 2014 and 2018. The 1,500-passenger and 144-car capacity Olympic-class ferries give WSF the maximum flexibility to be as uniform and consistent as possible, yet its price tag comes close to what Viking Line paid for its lavish 65,211gt cruise ferry Viking Glory, built by Xiamen Shipbuilding Industry in China. Even so, building abroad, let alone China, is not an option. “It’s not easy for us to build and as a government agency, it’s even harder to be innovative which is one of the struggles we face,” says Rubstello. “The question is also whether there are enough shipbuilders in Washington state that can gear up, not only to deliver five ships, but also do it at a reasonable price. But when it comes to building abroad – which is cheaper indeed – I don’t see this happening in my lifetime.”
Rubstello expects the first new hybrid-electric Olympic-class vessel to be delivered in 2027, with the other four to follow at one-year intervals. Funding for the newbuilds has already been made available. Full authority has been given to implement hybrid-electric technology for the newbuilds as well as a hybrid-electric retrofit of the three existing Jumbo Mark II-class double-enders, the largest vessels in WSF’s 21-ship strong fleet. “We also have funding to bring shoreside charging power to five of our terminals,” adds Rubstello.
Keeping the diesel engine element is necessary as WSF’s ships are not built for specific routes; they are designed to operate across all 10 if necessary. “We need maximum flexibility – there’s some comfort in knowing that you have a backup if electric charging power isn’t there for whatever reason. While it will be possible to operate full electric on the shorter-distance routes – for example, our Seattle-Bremerton route will have charging connections on both sides – this will not be possible on the longer routes, especially when plug-in facilities are only available on one side. Charging shouldn’t impact our operations flow and therefore batteries need to be recharged in 20 minutes.”
Rubstello underlines that Jay Inslee, Washington state’s democratic governor, is a huge proponent for addressing climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. “We burn over 15 million gallons of diesel every year. That’s quite significant, so we did a study that came out with the recommendation to implement hybrid-electric technology, something fully supported by our governor.”
With no coal or nuclear power available in Seattle, a combination of hydro and wind power will be supplied by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission power companies.
This article was first published in the 2022 Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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