State sues over fast-ferry flaws

Fleet's newer vessels have difficulties coping with heavy seas, and have needed numerous repairs

Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Alaska is suing the manufacturer of its troubled fast ferries, which have been plagued by engine troubles and other breakdowns since joining the fleet in 2004 and 2005.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The Alaska Department of Law filed suit Friday in Superior Court against Robert E. Derecktor Inc. of New York and two engine manufacturing firms, MTU Friedrichshafen GmbH and MTU Detroit Diesel.

Derecktor Shipyards Inc. of Bridgeport, Conn., built the fast vehicle ferries Fairweather, based in Juneau, and the Chenaga, which operates in Prince William Sound.

The suit seeks damages, but does not specify an amount sought.

"To date the state has incurred several hundred thousand dollars in propulsion system-related costs, including investigation of propulsion system failures/deficiencies, parts/repair costs and attorney's fees," said Department of Law spokesman Bill McAllister.

The aluminum-hulled catamaran-style ferries can carry up to 30 vehicles and 250 passengers, traveling up to 40 miles per hour - twice as fast as conventional ferries.

They have had difficulties coping with heavy seas, and have needed numerous repairs, Alaska Marine Highway System officials said.

"Since we accepted delivery of the vessels in 2004 and 2005, the propulsion systems have been subject to recurrent problems," said Jim Beedle, deputy commissioner of marine operations with the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

The state has long been in negotiations with the companies about responsibility for the vessels. The Fairweather had to undergo a massive overhaul in 2006, just two years after it entered service.

The legal action was necessary because issues have not yet been settled, and deadlines are approaching, the Department of Law said.

"Given the ongoing problems and an approaching deadline for filing suit, the state has been compelled to take this unresolved issue to court. However, we have not ruled out further negotiations if we can get a favorable result for Alaska," Beedle said.

A New York-based attorney for Derecktor did not return phone calls Monday.

The ferry engines were provided by the German manufacturer MTU Friedrichshafen and subsidiary MTU Detroit Diesel. Those engines have had continued problems, the suit said, including degraded engine blocks, cracked cylinder liners, excessive propulsion system variation, damaged reduction gear units and prematurely spent components such as gears, shafts, bearings, etc., the suit said.

MTU has since ceased production of the model of engine installed in the Alaska vessels, and the suit said the company has failed to maintain a necessary supply of replacement parts as required by contract.

The complaint also noted that Alaska purchased extended warranties with the vessels.

The defendants have failed to provide contract, warranty and service obligations, the suit said.

Derecktor Shipyards filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2008, but it is not clear what impact that may have on the case. McAllister said the state's contract was with Robert. E. Derecktor Inc. The suit also said the engine companies are independently liable for the state's losses.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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