Overloaded buses and long waits: Yosemite cracks down on concession operator Aramark

The famed waterfalls were flowing freely at Yosemite National Park this summer, providing a spectacular scene for thousands of visitors daily to the Yosemite Valley.

But the roar of the falls, birds chirping and wind rustling through the trees aren’t the only sounds reverberating in the valley.

In mid-May, even before the Memorial Day holiday that marked the start of the peak summer tourist season, there was grumbling among park visitors and employees about shuttle buses that are supposed to reduce traffic congestion in Yosemite Valley and enhance the visitor experience.

Too few shuttle buses meant long wait times for passengers. In some instances, buses had so many people already aboard that waiting visitors at some shuttle stops around the valley were unable to board for a ride back to their cars or their lodging.

It seemed like this summer could be a repeat of 2018, which park officials described as “the worst year of operation” for the shuttle buses since Aramark, the park’s Philadelphia-based concession contractor, took over commercial operations inside Yosemite in 2016.

There were so many visitor complaints last year – and reports by drivers of verbal or physical abuse and even frustrated passengers forming human chains to force buses to stop – that park officials gave Aramark an ultimatum this spring: improve service on the buses to a satisfactory level or face financial penalties.

So dismal was the 2018 performance of Aramark and its subsidiary, Yosemite Hospitality LLC, that the National Park Service rated its transportation service “unsatisfactory” and gave the company an overall rating of “marginal.”

This summer, the company was able to raise its game and avoid monetary sanctions, a park spokesman said this week. But “it’s not consistent,” said ranger Scott Gediman, Yosemite’s public information officer. “Service has definitely improved. Improvements are in place … but there are occasional lapses.”

‘Substantial’ visitor complaints

Yosemite Hospitality’s annual operating review for 2018, issued in March and released to The Bee recently under a federal Freedom of Information Act request, detailed the concerns of park officials with a lack of compliance with various terms of its 15-year concession contract that runs through 2031. It includes tardiness filing required reports, charging incorrect rates for tours and other services, and operating some services on different schedules than what had already been published.

But it’s the shuttle service – the green-and-white buses that are among the most visible manifestations of the concession operations for many day-trip visitors to Yosemite – that was singled out by Yosemite National Park Superintendent Michael Reynolds for the greatest concern.

“The Visitor Transportation System (VTS) must operate with a high degree of service and reliability going forward,” Reynolds wrote to Robert Concienne, vice president of operations for Yosemite Hospitality, in a March 4 letter accompanying the annual rating. Reynolds added that the park “received a substantial number of complaints” over the service in 2018, “with visitors reaching a point of frustration that would compel unsafe behavior in the form of human chains and other angry behavior toward your shuttle drivers and fellow visitors.“

“This cannot happen anymore,” the superintendent told Concienne. “You must provide sufficient staff to operate and maintain a working VTS to the satisfaction of the National Park Service. …”

That meant getting at least 13 buses running on the Yosemite Valley loop daily – more than double the daily number of vehicles that were frequently operating in 2018 – by June 1 and keeping them running throughout the summer.

The concession contract for Yosemite is the largest in the national park system, Gediman said. Aramark entered the 15-year deal with the National Park Service in 2016 with an estimated value of about $2 billion. It includes operations at the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village, Wawona Hotel, Badger Pass ski area and other stores, restaurants and services inside the park boundaries.

The deal includes the buses on the year-round 7.8-mile, 21-stop Yosemite Valley loop, as well as a parking shuttle, El Capitan shuttle and an after-hours on-demand shuttle for park visitors and employees.

Reynolds’ letter notes ratings of marginal or unsatisfactory indicate that a concession operator be denied rate increases. “Such scores indicate failure for the concessioner to substantially meet visitor service standards and/or administrative requirements,” Reynolds wrote. The park service was allowing conditional rate approvals – if Aramark and Yosemite Hospitality could resolve its contractual deficiencies by June 1. Failure to do so would result in revoking any approved 2019 rate increases and rejecting additional rate increases this year.

Gediman said this week that Aramark and Yosemite Hospitality did enough to satisfy park officials and receive the rate increases. “They’re moving in the right direction,” Gediman said. “We feel they’ve made a very serious effort” to live up to the contractual obligations – but not without hiccups.

“Although we are appreciative of them making the effort to get the number of shuttles up to what’s required of them, since June there continue to be challenges,” Gediman added. “There are days when not all of the required buses are on the road.”

Visitor and driver concerns

Just two weeks before the June 1 deadline, the ability of Yosemite Hospitality and Aramark to meet their shuttle obligation appeared to be in doubt.

“They stink,” said one visitor who was denied boarding on an already-full bus at Yosemite Village in May. “The best way to get around is, No. 1, bicycle; No. 2, walking, and then the shuttle.” The man, a retired police officer from Colorado who didn’t want to share his name, described himself as a frequent visitor to national parks across the country.

“This isn’t summertime; it’s not the busy season yet,” he added. “I’m just a visitor here, but it’s failed me.”

The National Park Service owns 25 hybrid electric-diesel buses available for shuttle routes Aramark and Yosemite Hospitality are supposed to operate; Aramark and Yosemite Hospitality also are responsible for maintaining them.

“One of the reasons for the poor performance was because Yosemite Hospitality failed to hire the appropriate number of drivers to make use of the entire fleet,” the 2018 annual review stated. “They also failed to hire the appropriate number of technicians to adequately maintain the fleet which averaged between 8-10 shuttles being down all year” for the Yosemite Valley loop.

The review also criticized Yosemite Hospitality for not operating the Tuolumne Meadows shuttle service last year after telling the park that it would do so. “The decision to change their mind about the service was relayed to the park after the (2018 season) guide was published so for the entire summer visitors consistently expected this service and were extremely disappointed and angry that it was not offered,” the review stated.

Visitors weren’t the only people complaining. Yosemite Hospitality’s drivers also sought multiple meetings with Yosemite park leadership over the problems with lack of drivers, mechanics and limited number of operable buses.

One of those Yosemite Hospitality employees, Loretta Dooley, has been a seasonal driver in the park since 2011. Dooley told The Bee that she and her colleagues told park officials they worried about the safety of the buses because of lacking maintenance, plus the vehicles aren’t inspected as frequently as required by law.

“We had buses that have the (brake warning) lights on, buses with no proof of insurance, buses with ‘check engine’ lights on, buses that were overdue for inspections, all of these things,” Dooley said. “That puts all of us, guests and drivers, kind of at risk.”

Several other drivers, who didn’t want their names used because of fear for their jobs, agreed with Dooley. She said, “It’s hard. We all love this place and we love our jobs. But now it’s gotten to the point in the summer where we’re being verbally assaulted, we’re having to herd people onto buses like cattle, and then you have to worry about threats to your safety.”

“When you have thousands of people being left behind every day, they’re waiting a couple of hours for a bus when the stops are only 10 minutes apart, it’s insane,” Dooley said. “They need to run an adequate number of buses on the shuttle loop to enhance the visitor experience, and that’s not happening when people are coming to the most beautiful place in the world … and they end up so frustrated because the service is so lacking.”

Ongoing challenges

An Aramark spokesman acknowledged “last year presented some unique challenges” for the shuttle operations, including a government shutdown early in the year and the Ferguson fire that closed Yosemite Valley for about two weeks and forced evacuations of concession employees.

Aramark’s David Freireich told The Bee both incidents affected the company’s staffing in the park, “including skilled licensed bus drivers who sought employment elsewhere” during the closure.

But in the wake of the lackluster operating review, “the Visitor Transportation System continues to receive our full attention.”

Freiriech told The Bee in May the company was in the process of hiring 25 new bus drivers and staff to help it meet the park service’s deadline and the demands of the peak summer season. As of this week, “we have 75-plus drivers and garage support personnel on staff,” Freiriech said. “Even with a beefed-up staff, we recognize work remains to be done, which is why we continue to put resources against recruiting and hiring qualified individuals for these highly skilled positions.”

Gediman, the park spokesman, said another major concern last year was Yosemite Hospitality wasn’t keeping park officials fully apprised of the difficulties in providing enough buses on the Yosemite Valley loop, including a shortage of drivers and mechanics to keep buses rolling. “Last year, as incidents and complaints came to a crescendo, we expressed to them the need to tell us every day how many buses they have,” or why there might be a shortage on a given day.

“If we know they’re going to be one or two buses short, then in the visitor center we can tell visitors” so they’re not surprised by longer wait times, Gediman added. “But mainly, we want those bus counts because they are contractually obligated to run that minimum number of buses, and ensuring that they’re fulfilling the requirements of the contract.” That’s 13 buses each day in June, July and August, dropping down to 12 buses a day in September.

This summer, Aramark has provided those daily bus counts to the park service. But while Yosemite Hospitality and Aramark have managed to satisfy park leaders and avoid the financial penalties over the transportation services, Gediman acknowledged it hasn’t necessarily been smooth sailing. Because Yosemite Hospitality and Aramark have not managed to consistently run the required number of buses daily for the visitor shuttles, “no, they are not meeting their contractual obligation,” Gediman said.

“It’s a contract, so there’s obviously a huge amount of money involved, but we understand there are challenges,” he added. “There have been cases when drivers have been out sick, so on the valley floor tours, the Hiker’s Bus and other services, they’ve had to cut back on those to keep up with the shuttle.”

There are still complaints about the shuttles, but fewer than last year. “We still hear about visitors who are frustrated by full shuttle buses,” Gediman said. “But this summer is better; it’s not as frequent.”

In terms of some of the “bigger incidents,” like verbal or physical abuse of drivers, or human chains across roadways, Gediman said “that’s being kept to a minimum.”

“From having an ear to the ground, is everything perfect?” Gediman asked. “No. But we’ve seen them make an attempt to get better and they’re having some good results.”

Dooley and a former shuttle driver, retired California Highway Patrol officer Robert Seddon, both said they remain concerned about Yosemite Hospitality’s ability to maintain the mechanical safety of the buses.

“They’ve been running too few buses,” Seddon said. “Is that illegal? No, but it’s stupid.”

Seddon told The Bee that before he stopped driving in the fall of 2017, and during return visits to the park including this summer, he observed buses were routinely operating well beyond their required inspection dates, while open-air tram trailers used for the paid Valley Floor tours were not properly registered for operation in California.

Seddon said because the California Highway Patrol has no jurisdiction within the federal park, responsibility for forcing Yosemite Hospitality/Aramark to properly inspect and properly maintain the vehicles lies with the National Park Service. “The bottom line, I believe, is that the Park Service doesn’t want to do anything about it,” Seddon said.

Gediman acknowledged that it falls to the Park Service to make sure Yosemite Hospitality and Aramark are complying with bus inspection and maintenance, but “we really don’t have the expertise for that. That’s where it gets a little tricky.”

Gediman said he couldn’t definitively discuss allegations by Seddon or current drivers about overdue inspections or unsafe buses. As for registration of the vehicles, Gediman added, “that’s on us” as the Park Service is the owner of the vehicles.

Many of the buses are past their prime. Of the 25 buses in the park’s fleet, 18 are 2005 models that are now 14 years old. Four were built in 2010 and three more are 2011 models. “These are aging buses,” Gediman said. “We do have some new buses on order for gradual replacement, but that has been one of the issues. … If a bus breaks down, sometimes it’s a part that’s not always easy to get.”

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