A Tour of Alameda’s Ferry Maintenance Facility

The Ron Cowan Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility opened last December. Streetsblog got a look inside.

Ferries docked at the maintenance facility, seen in the distance. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick
Ferries docked at the maintenance facility, seen in the distance. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick

Right next to the Hornet Museum, on western Alameda Island, sits the new $50 million Ron Cowan ferry maintenance facility, opened at the end of last year. Inside, workers toil away fueling and maintaining the ferries that carry commuters around the Bay.

From the website of Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), which operates many of the Bay Area’s ferry services:

The Ron Cowan Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility is the new home of the San Francisco Bay Ferry fleet in the central bay, providing a consolidated base to maintain vessels operating on its Alameda/Oakland, Alameda Harbor Bay, Richmond and South San Francisco ferry routes. The facility also includes an Operations Control Center for service dispatch and an Emergency Operations Center that will serve as a primary location for WETA to coordinate the provision of emergency transportation services in the event of a regional disaster or transportation disruption.

Streetsblog got a look inside this facility on a recent Friday morning, to see exactly how WETA’s people keep the ferries sailing and afloat, and how the building better helps them prepare for potential emergencies.

Frank Hernandez first learned engine and transportation maintenance in the Air Force, and then took a maritime job in Seattle, before becoming Engineering Manager for WETA’s Blue and Gold Fleets. “Before this facility, our infrastructure was scarce,” he explained. In fact, WETA didn’t even have enough dock space to bring in all of its fleet at once for fueling and maintenance, which often meant driving crews between South City and Pier 41 to take care of the boats. Sometimes ferries were even forced to bob off shore waiting for a place to come in. “Now we have all our crews and engineers in one spot.”

The new facility can handle twelve boats.

Hernandez showing the fuel tanks for the boats
Hernandez showing the fuel tanks for the boats.

They also now have a 42,000 gallon fuel yard, which can keep the fleet running for a week, carrying first responders in the event of an emergency. The fuel tanks are automatically measured and anyone at the facility can keep tabs on fuel capacity by looking at a phone app. “Prior to that, we had to open the tank and measure the level with a ruler,” said Hernandez. When the boats come in after the morning or evening runs, crews can watch the flow of fuel around the facility and into the boat’s tanks from their phones. They also top off the boats’ urea tanks–a chemical added to engine exhaust to eliminate smog-producing emissions. “And we add lube oil and offload dirty lube oil.”

The facility is also equipped to handle R-99–a mix of bio diesel and conventional fuel.

Pumps carry urea, diesel and lubrication oil to these dock locations. A phone app enables workers to keep tabs of when tanks are getting low
Pumps carry urea, diesel, and lubrication oil to these dock locations. A phone app enables workers to keep tabs of when tanks are getting low.

The facility also allows WETA to repair all but the most major damage onsite.

Spare props are stored on a shelf and can be switched out to get boats back into service overnight
Spare props are stored on a shelf and can be switched out to get boats back into service overnight.

They have spare props on hand, for example, which can be replaced by divers. “A prop can be changed out in five or six hours,” said Hernandez. There is also a sophisticated welding facility to repair steel, copper, aluminum, or alloy pipes and parts. WETA employees are trained here on welding techniques, which Hernandez says are as much “art as science.” Previously, repairs had to be contracted out, and could take weeks.

Welders practice on scraps of pipe
Welders practice on scraps of pipe.

WETA also showed Streetsblog one of the newer boat’s engine rooms–and the redundancy that assures that even the most severely damaged boat could still limp home. Each boat has two independent propulsion systems, each equipped with its own electrical generator and backup batteries. Each engine has twelve cylinders and generates 1800 horsepower.

One of the newer boats diesel engines. There are two, completely independent propulsion systems, one located on either side of the ferry
One of the newer boat’s diesel engines. There are two completely independent propulsion systems, one located on each side of the ferry.

From the pilot house, ferry operators can look into the engine rooms via video cameras, and remotely trigger fire suppression systems if needed. Crews regularly drill for such emergencies, working with the Coast Guard to simulate fires and test crew reactions.

Meanwhile, each large ferry carries the equivalent of nine busloads of passengers, or about 445 people. Smaller boats carry around 200 people. To improve efficiency, WETA is looking at reducing weight, incorporating more aluminum parts and lighter seating materials. They also are looking at fuel cells and hydrogen for future propulsion systems, but, for now, diesel is still the best fuel in terms of energy per pound of weight.

Of course, they also carry bikes. Hernandez pointed out one project their shop is working on that he thought would be especially interesting to Streetsblog readers. They ordered a bunch of bike hooks online and found that, over time, the rubber sleeves on them tend to wear out. WETA workers have figured out a vinyl dip coating that seems to wear better. He said he’d like to hear from ferry riders what they think of the new coating, so please post your comments below.

The new coating, left, and the old rubber sleeve, right, which has been wearing out and slipping off
The new coating, left, and the old rubber sleeve, at the top of the bike hook on the right, which has been wearing out and slipping off

The tour was a reminder of everything that’s involved in keeping the machinery of the Bay Area in safe, working order. So keep that in mind next time you take a ferry–they don’t run without sweat, skill, patience, and a whole lot of spare parts at facilities such as this one.

More pics of the facility and the guts of the ferries below:

IMG_20190726_110401
This work station in the facility is a life saver.
IMG_20190726_105216
Maintaining a ship is all about keeping things clean, but not too abrasive.
GPS shows where every boat is located on this screen in the facility
GPS tracks every boat on this screen, in case someone loses a giant boat.
The controls.
The controls. I wonder what this knob does…
Urea is injected into the ferry exhaust here to neutralize smog-producing emissions
Urea is injected into the ferry exhaust here to neutralize smog-producing emissions
And if the GPS and computers fail, ferry pilots can always fall back on good old fashioned charts
If the GPS and computers fail, ferry pilots can always fall back on good-old fashioned charts and carbon paper, always on hand in the pilot house of the boats. Batteries not included.
  • Bruce

    Really interesting article, Roger, thanks for the tour! Stuff like this isn’t as “sexy” as new bike lanes or whatnot but these kinds of facilities, and the dedicated people who work in them, keep Bay Area transit going.

  • andybaumgar

    Cool! This building is near where I work in Alameda point but I never knew what was inside!

    I’m surprised those bike hooks wear out, I feel like people prefer the normal racks. I’m always glad to use them when the racks are filled though.

  • Sean Smith

    Ironically, the facility is difficult to access without a car, causing many employees to depend on one and be subject to the same gridlock problems the ferries are supposed to alleviate

  • Roger R.

    It’s actually an easy bike ride from Alameda’s current ferry terminal. And, if they had a decent way to get to Oakland across the western estuary, it wouldn’t be too bad from BART and Cap Corridor rail service. But that’s a whole other issue. 🙁

  • They have employee shuttle from the main street ferry assuming you live near a ferry. There is also a bus line from BART that drops off about a mile away on the base too.

  • Sean Smith

    Yes that is exactly the issue.

  • Sean Smith

    The bus line is not so frequent or reliable. Expanding the shuttle service would benefit employees and could benefit underserved communities in the area as well.

  • Roger R.

    No argument here. That’s why I’ve written about gondola proposals, bridge proposals, water-bike ideas… one of these days I think I’m just going to buy a canoe and start taking people across myself.

  • Sean Smith

    A water taxi would help a lot. More power to you and your canoe!

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