When Thorm Forseth, the founder of Rimrock Stages Inc., talks about the importance of connections, he's not talking about work or social networking.
He means rebuilding Montana's bus connections after that mode of travel got thrown up in the air when Greyhound Lines Inc. quit serving Montana and North Dakota in 2004.
"I like to feel we're putting Montana back together with transportation now," Forseth said.
His company has become Montana's largest bus line.
On June 21, Rimrock Stages took over almost all of the Greyhound Bus Line routes, except for a slice west of Missoula.
And as soon as he mails in the lease, Forseth will officially be running the Greyhound bus depot on First Avenue North in downtown Billings. The bus depot will serve two other bus companies as well, Jefferson Bus Lines, which serves South Dakota, and Arrow Lines Inc., which drives into Wyoming and to Denver.
Forseth has sweat-equity credibility on this topic, having started his bus industry career 51 years ago. At age 19, the son of a Greyhound driver was loading and unloading baggage at the Billings station.
In 1972, Forseth started Rimrock Stages, now based at 5044 Midland Road.
With control of Montana bus routes, Forseth has shifted some schedules and hubs around to save travel time.
Billings remains the main hub, but the Butte connections were moved north. A late afternoon bus still travels to Butte, but Helena is the mini-hub now.
"I've cut two to three hours off travel from both Helena and Great Falls either west or east," he said.
The company also runs 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. eastbound buses from Billings across North Dakota to Fargo, which is an 11½-hour trip.
Heading west, bus riders in Missoula will transfer from a Rimrock to a Greyhound bus to continue their trip.
Rimrock Stages, which also does business as Rimrock Trailways, serves 27 cities and towns in Montana and a dozen in North Dakota. The company employs 49 people, after hiring five more for the new runs.
Dar and Jim Aldrich of Billings, who represent the Montana Association for the Blind and ride the bus often, said they were happy about the Helena hub changes.
"Being able to get to Great Falls through Helena will cut time, and it is a nicer ride," Jim Aldrich said.
High gas prices encourage people to ride the bus, Forseth said, but the business remains very dependent on the national economy.
"In 2008, when the first gasoline spiked in price, we went gangbusters. We thought we hit the mother lode there," he said.
But then economic recession hit and made 2009 and most of 2010 challenging, he said.
Last year, Rimrock Stages drivers traveled 1.4 million miles carrying 68,800 passengers, plus packages. Charter operations make up 17 percent of the business.
Rimrock runs 17 buses, but is adding two more. By 2012, all the buses will be equipped with lifts for the handicapped, as required by federal law.
Now the Billings business has gone third-generation. Eric Forseth is its vice president running the day-to-day operations and his mother, Jean, who retired as a nurse, has been put back to work in the family business.
Forseth said he plans on making just a few changes to the bus depot, which was extensively remodeled back to its original Art Deco look a decade ago.
He'll put Rimrock Stages' name where the Greyhound dog is leaping from red to blue on a sign now.
But he's keeping all the neon, from the vertical "BUS" to the "GREYHOUND" letters above the entrance.
"It's part of the historic look. I just didn't have the heart to take it down," Forseth said.
To learn more, go to www.rimrocktrailways.com or call 800-255-7655.