Bus riders traveling east and west between Billings and Missoula have three daily round trips to choose from again.
On March 30, Jefferson Lines of Minneapolis picked up one of three of Rimrock Stages’ daily routes. And Thursday, Salt Lake Express of Rexburg, Idaho, started driving the other two runs.
The carriers are filling the service void caused two weeks ago when federal regulators shut down Rimrock Stages of Billings for “imminently hazardous” safety violations.
“It was essential that those lines — the east-west routes — got back up because without them we really didn’t have any routes coming out of Butte,” said Jacob Price, operations manager for Salt Lake Express.
And Great Falls is about to get a bus service break.
Beginning April 15, Salt Lake Express will run daily buses from Great Falls to Helena and a second bus from Great Falls through Helena to Butte.
To serve the Montana cities, Price said his company is using four motor coaches recently purchased for summer charters. But in another month, the Idaho carrier will have to decide whether to buy more buses for its charter business or quit the Montana runs.
“Our loyalty is with Rimrock Stages. We would do anything to see them succeed,” Price said. “They (the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration officials) are really cracking down on passenger carriers. It could be any company, any time.”
But if Rimrock can’t come back financially or pass regulatory muster again, Price said his company would be interested in serving the Montana routes.
Kevin Pursey, marketing director for Jefferson Lines in Minneapolis, also said his company is committed to the Billings-Missoula route it began on March 30.
“We’re staying on this run until they come back, and if for some reason they don’t come back, we’ll stay on it,” he said.
Billings now has all but one of the Rimrock Stages bus routes back, said Kay Stuart, who runs the Billings bus terminal.
“About the only thing they don’t have is the evening bus going to Fargo,” she said.
Billings bus terminal employees cared for the stranded passengers after the abrupt end to Rimrock Stages service, Stuart said, and Rimrock picked up the food tab, including pizza and sandwiches for up to 40 people.
Also, bus terminal doors were kept open for passengers who couldn’t catch a ride, so they would have a place to sleep, she said.
“You run into a majority of passengers who travel on a low budget, so it’s just the right thing to do,” she said.
Thorm Forseth, who started Rimrock Stages 37 years ago, said Friday that his company is busy trying to address the federal officials' safety concerns.
“We’re whipping the buses into shape, No. 1,” he said. “We have not received the final report from FMCSA, so we don’t know if they have any other issues.”
The only correspondence he’s seen was the March 22 order to stop operating, and Forseth said he doesn’t have any details yet about how to reapply for carrier operating status. Rimrock must start over like a new bus company.
“We are intent upon getting back in business as soon as we can get it done. We’re not quitting,” he said.