Lifeline Reliability Puts Lives at Risk

By Paula Hollywood

Industry Trends

To escape the heat wave that gripped the ARC HQ region last week, one had to go offshore to the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.  The ferry is the most economical and convenient way to get there.  For purposes here, ferry refers to the ten vessels operated by The Steamship Authority (SSA), the largest ferry service to the islands for passengers and vehicles.  SSA’s mission is to serve as the lifeline to the islands year-round.  Currently, permanent island residents and visitors alike believe SSA are failing in its mission.  In just the first four months of 2018, SSA cancelled 549 trips due to mechanical problems.  The number of cancellations due to mechanical trouble continues to mount in this peak tourist season including six more today alone.  In comparison, from 2014 through 2017 a total of 148 ferries were cancelled for mechanical reasons.  An anomaly perhaps, but at 15 times the yearly average, clearly something has gone awry.  What would you do if your plant were experiencing such losses and stakeholder anxiety?

lifeline Waiting to Board the M/V Martha’s Vineyard
                                         Waiting to Board the M/V Martha's Vineyard

Little Value in Unreliable Lifeline

The situation reminds this blogger of the movie, Jaws.  Local officials don’t want to close the beaches, but are divided in how to proceed.  Local merchants are up in arms about visitors staying away and make the collective decision to hire a professional shark hunter.  This time, it isn’t a shark that concerns them - it’s the reliability of its lifeline.  If the SSA were a manufacturing enterprise, summer is peak production time.  In 2016, SSA reported its vessels transported over 3 million passengers, 72 percent travelled between May – October, peak season.  When the lifeline is unreliable, it isn’t just the holidaymakers that are impacted.  The islands economies are dependent on tourism and if the tourists can’t get there, they suffer.  Daily commuters and other island residents are dependent on the ferry to get to the mainland for any number of reasons. 

SSA’s troubles became apparent in the spring with it called a series of unrelated failures; generator issues, broken check valves, electrical panel malfunction, etc.  The most severe incident occurred in March when a 25-year old ferry lost power to both engines stranding more than 80 people for five hours.  An emergency generator could maintain vessel power, but unable to generate propulsion or heat forcing the vessel to drop anchor to keep from drifting.  This vessel had recently returned to service after a $17.4 million refurbishment including new generators and electrical systems, remodeled decks, hull cleaning and steel replacement.  It was later determined that the vessel’s main fuel oil transfer pump did not generate enough pressure to transfer fuel properly.  It was reported earlier in the day that a wire on one of the newly installed ship generators came loose and began to arc.  The pump alarm was not activated and the pressure gauge did not provide sufficient detail to warn engineers of a problem.  Sound familiar?  Spend a lot money to upgrade and still experience downtime.  It’s not just the vessels plaguing SSA.  This post-July Fourth weekend, a shuttle bus operating between remote parking areas and the ferry terminal caught fire destroying not only the bus, but damaging 14 other vehicles too. 

When things operate as they should, a ferry trip to the islands is a delightful experience.  In its defense, SSA attempts to keep passengers informed via social media and recover from missed trips by juggling or rerouting vessels.  To be fair and balanced, just like in the movie, year-round islanders are a salty bunch.  Local news coverage paints a picture of SSA as a poorly managed “old boys” network sadly in need of change.  Some point the finger at the hasty retirements of several managers including the port captain, responsible for vessel operations.  A more likely scenario is Reason’s Swiss cheese model created a path to failure. 

Common Problems

In manufacturing, budget is a frequently cited constraint for improvement.  Cursory investigation by this analyst indicates that’s not a factor here.  SSA proudly states that since its inception in 1960, it has experienced only four annual operating deficits.  Obviously, maintaining the seaworthiness of vessels is a priority.  Like manufacturing, SSA is concerned with extending the life of its assets.  Like a manufacturer, SSA must also contend with the complexities of new equipment, availability of skilled workers, managing subcontractors, etc.  However, without satisfied customers, SSA and the fortunes of the islands are at stake. 

Call in the Consultants

While SSA is currently failing on the PR side, management appears to be committed to stem this tide of unreliability.  It has been reported that SSA’s governing board has entered contract negotiations with HMS Consulting and Technical LLC of Seattle to perform a comprehensive operational review.  A subsidiary of HMS Global Maritime which also operates ferry services, HMS has proposed reviews of vessel operations, fleet maintenance, management structure, public communications, and IT systems.  Once the contract is signed, HMS anticipates a 12-week review period before it issues its short and long-term recommendations.  A final report is months away.  In the meantime, if you plan to travel to take the ferry to either Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket this summer, you may want to sign up for SSA Travel Alerts.


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