Steamship Authority strengthens bus policy

Terminal employees to call Peter Pan if last bus to Woods Hole is tardy.

The Steamship Authority and Peter Pan Bus lines are working together to prevent passengers from being stranded again in the future. - Josephine Brennan

The Steamship Authority has adopted new procedures to address late buses in Woods Hole. At the Port Council Meeting in Falmouth Thursday, the ferry service decided if the last Peter Pan bus is behind schedule to drop off passengers for the last ferry to the Vineyard, Steamship Authority staff will reach out to Peter Pan and find out what’s going on.

The new policy is in response to a May 29 incident, first reported by The Times, in which Island teenagers got stranded in Falmouth after the last ferry did not wait for a late Peter Pan bus to arrive from Boston. The teens wound up having a difficult time securing a hotel room due to their ages. On June 13, Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis wrote in an email that the Steamship Authority wasn’t informed the bus was running late.

“Although we will hold the boat on the last trip if the Peter Pan bus notifies us that they are nearby, we received no notification from them as to their ETA on May 29,” he wrote.

But now the Steamship Authority intends to communicate in the other direction.

“If the bus that is due to arrive in Woods Hole at 9:30 pm hasn’t done so by 9:40 pm, personnel at the terminal will call Peter Pan dispatchers to find out the status of the bus,” Steamship Authority spokesman Sean Driscoll wrote in an email to The Times. “Personnel in the Woods Hole terminal now also have the ability to check on the bus’s status online, and we’ve confirmed that the Peter Pan dispatchers have the correct number to call to alert us of a delay.”

Frank Dougherty, vice president of operations for Peter Pan, told The Times that the bus company had the wrong phone number for the Woods Hole terminal, possibly because of the ongoing construction there. It was a number drivers had called for years, he said. “We’ve rectified that now.”

Now the SSA also has access to the bus GPS system.

“We move a half a million people to the boats every year,” Dougherty said. “We do it with 99 percent success.”

Dougherty said he personally took the phone call that night of May 29, when the passengers were stranded. They did everything they could to recommend hotels, and brought them back to Falmouth center, where there were more choices, he said.

“We felt terrible about it,” he said.

Driscoll also said the Steamship Authority is working to expand its list of available hotels to make sure it can suggest options for travelers who are under the age of 21.

The bus service makes it clear on its website that it can’t guarantee connections, Dougherty said. Still, they do all they can to accommodate passengers, particularly those trying to make it home to the Islands.

“We bypassed Falmouth that night,” he said, referring to a stop near the center of town.

Just Thursday there was an incident where an unmarked bus was rented by Peter Pan and the driver left Woods Hole too early, Dougherty said. They were able to contact the bus and have it turn around to accommodate passengers leaving the Island on a ferry that was delayed by fog, he said.

Violet Kennedy was aboard the May 29 Peter Pan bus from Boston that arrived in Woods Hole to find the ferry gone. She considers the policy change a step in the right direction.

“The reputation of the SSA isn’t the best, and I didn’t expect anything,” she wrote in a text message. “Tough luck usually in this type of situation. It’s a really great surprise to hear that they’ve done this!”

Kennedy’s friend Kate Sudarsky was also on the bus that night, and was enthused to learn of the policy change.

“Well that’s great!” she wrote. “I think that’s a hugely useful policy that will benefit many in the future.”

Offshore Engineering president John Packer, who excoriated the Steamship Authority in a June 15 letter over the stranded teenagers, welcomed the policy changes.

“I am very optimistic about the Port Council’s implementation of a protocol regarding the last bus to Woods Hole,” he texted. “I see this as a positive step in a long process where the Steamship can begin to understand the wants and the needs of the island people and our summer guests, as well as understanding how vital the performance of their duties, from the deckhand to the general manager, is on keeping the lifeline of the island operating at optimum performance.”

The Vineyard’s Steamship Authority board representative, Marc Hanover, was advised in Packer’s letter to motivate Robert Davis to institute change.

“Mr. Hanover, you need to explain to Mr. Davis that his job is to provide safe and reliable transportation to our Island,” Packer wrote. “His job is to maintain a lifeline; if he cannot do that you need to show him the door, and if you cannot do that, we need to show you the door.”

Reached by telephone, Hanover said he did not play a role in the implementation of the new policy, but welcomed the improvement to Steamship Authority customer service.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said.


George Brennan contributed to this report.