The colorful, trademark Hearst Castle buses are back on the steep road to and from the hilltop estate, but they’re under new ownership.
According to Dan Falat, superintendent of the state park district that includes Hearst Castle, a contract assignment was finalized late Thursday so ownership of those buses and responsibility to provide the transportation service is now with Lux Bus America.
The contract assignment solved a problem that’s been complicating visitor transportation at the Castle for about a month.
The monument’s previous contract bus provider, Silverado Stages, suddenly went into bankruptcy right before Christmas. Since then, the highly identifiable, natural-gas-powered buses had been idled while interim provider Laz Parking of Southern California filled in the gap in service with different buses.
“Laz did an excellent job on very short notice,” Falat said.
Matt Brown, Lux Bus CEO, said Friday that he’s been negotiating with the Castle and the state since immediately after the Silverado Stages bankruptcy happened.
The contract assignment “is a landmark” for the firm, he said, “a special opportunity for our company. It keeps us diversified, being able to be part of something like this for the state.”
Lux has contracts with the Cal State system, “but this is our first with the state of California. It’s definitely unique, and a cool opportunity.”
Lux must do a safety-and-equipment check on each bus before it goes back into service, Falat said.
Two of the buses are equipped to transport disabled visitors on special tours.
All the terms of the 10-year busing contract that started in 2012 remain the same, Falat said, but the reassignment “was contingent on the approval from the bankruptcy court and the concurrence of the state.”
All the drivers but one who had worked for Silverado at the Castle transferred to Laz and then to Lux. That was vital to being able to successfully navigate through the complicated situation without affecting visitors’ tour experiences, the superintendent said, because the drivers’ familiarity with the terrain and the precise, often-narrow route were essential.
“We were super happy to be able to retain the drivers, so they can keep their jobs,” Brown said.
At the end of the reassigned contract, the Castle will put the bus service out for bid in a standard process.
Will it affect tours?
Most visitors probably haven’t noticed any difference during the past month, Falat said.
Reservations were honored, he said, the number of tours didn’t change, and they were still offered across a broad range of times.
The Laz Parking buses didn’t have the audio-tour accompaniment, and most of those buses were smaller. But castle and Laz Parking staff made it work, Falat said, even though some groups on larger, sold-out tours had to be transported to the hilltop in multiple buses.
For instance, the Grand Rooms Tour accommodates up to 54 visitors, which meant tricky scheduling when the biggest available bus held 37 people.
“Our whole goal throughout has been to keep the visitor experience the same,” Falat said, even when it meant extra-long days for employees and a lot of schedule juggling. “Sometimes, it was down to the minute and the person. I owe thanks to Laz, my staff and the people in Sacramento, who spent countless hours through the holidays and every day since.”
Falat watched a Castle bus carrying the first tour of the day go up the hill at 9 a.m. Friday.
“As of today, we’re back to normal, and we’re all benefiting from that, especially the visitors,” he said.