Washington State Ferries is up for a challenge

Sandra Speares asks Amy Scarton how Washington State Ferries is continuing to pursue its long-term goals despite the challenging times

Washington State Ferries is up for a challenge
WSF has installed solar panels on the root of Bainbridge Island Ferry Terminal

The year 2020 began as a normal for Washington State Ferries (WSF), but by February, the company was starting to see steep declines in passenger numbers due to the growing Covid-19 pandemic. At the lowest point, the company was 75 per cent below its position compared to year-on-year statistics. In addition, some crew were unavailable and revenue was decreasing, so WSF extended its winter season schedule into the summer months. “We brought all our services down to the lowest level and we had a number of employees on alternate work assignments,” says Amy Scarton, chief executive at WSF.

Construction was also halted on a state-wide basis, with virtually all economic activities put on hold. “We shut our own shipyard for a period of weeks,” says Scarton. “Construction work on some of our biggest projects, including Colman Dock and Mukilteo terminal, was paused.”

However, WSF was able to continue working on some of the key elements of its long-range plan, which was announced in 2019 and predicts that ridership will grow more than 30 per cent by 2040, climbing to nearly 32 million passengers annually. Key elements of the plan include enhancing the customer experience, embracing new technology and improving service reliability by preserving vessels and terminals, as well as strengthening the resilience of the workforce.

To achieve these goals, Scarton says WSF will make coordinated investments in its fleet, terminal infrastructure, workforce and technology over the next 20 years. The focus will be on building a reliable fleet that has a lighter environmental footprint and outperforms carbon dioxide reduction targets – ideally a hybrid-electric fleet that would also cost less to operate.

Consequently, 13 of WSF’s ferries will be replaced in the next two decades. The company will also require an increased number of relief or standby vessels to ensure reliable service and adequate time for vessel maintenance and preservation to keep ferries operating for up to 50 and 60 years. In total, 16 newbuilds were also recommended in the plan.

Several flagship projects are already being launched, including the next phase of the Olympic-class vessel programme. “We were authorised to extend the contract we have with Vigor Shipyard to take the Olympic-class vessels and update the design so they were hybrid electric,” says Scarton. “Funding has been put in place and the design is nearly complete. The hope was to have a keel laying by the end of 2020, but the programme has been pushed back into 2021 because of the pandemic.”

There are also plans to convert three of the company’s largest vessels – the Jumbo Mark II class that primarily serve the Seattle to Bainbridge Island route – to hybrid electric. The ships are between 20-25 years old and were already due for a propulsion upgrade, so the aim is to install new electric systems at the same time. “The project is on track and funding is there for the conversion of the first vessel,” says Scarton.

The third marquee project is an overall system electrification. While the 2040 plan outlines the overarching goals for the service, the electrification plan represents more detailed work that involves looking at the different terminals and establishing exactly how they will be electrified and what specific design criteria have to be kept in mind. “We’re really excited about completing the plan in September so we can start moving on some of these terminal electrification projects,” says Scarton. “We want to electrify Colman Dock too.”

Scarton says WSF is still pursuing big marquee projects as well as the smaller day-to-day items that are important for its sustainability initiative. “When the Mukilteo terminal opens in December it will have a solar array and will be fully powered by solar energy,” she says. “It will also have grey water recycling and a lot of amazing environmental aspects. We’re adding solar panels to more terminals and looking at how we operate. Further initiatives will enable us to make fuel savings, reduce emissions and provide a quieter environment for marine life.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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By Sandra Speares
02 December 2020

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