Rimrock Stages off road for weeks as it works to reopen

2013-03-25T18:58:00Z 2013-04-05T21:42:04Z Rimrock Stages off road for weeks as it works to reopenBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Shut down by federal officials over safety violations, Billings-based passenger bus service Rimrock Stages is working to reopen, but it will likely take weeks, the company’s president said Monday.

“What we’re trying to do is get ourselves up to snuff and make this a positive thing,” said Thorm Forseth. “But we need to be 100 percent.”

The bus company, cited March 22 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for 79 safety violations, was the state’s only commercial passenger bus service. It was abruptly shut down by federal order, stranding passengers at depots across the state until Rimrock could arrange charter bus trips through another company.

The order essentially erases Rimrock Stages' 38 years in the bus business, Forseth said. The company will have to reapply before it can be a bus service again. Forseth said he’s heard talk of a bus business trying to create a stopgap bus service for Montana, but Rimrock cannot be part of those talks.

Neither Greyhound nor Trailways, which depend on Rimrock for Montana service, provided comment to The Gazette on Monday.

Forseth said only one in four companies returns to the road after a federal order like the one issued Friday. For that reason, Rimrock Stages wants to make sure it gets everything right before reapplying. 

Without a backup plan, Montana is stranded on the curb. Passenger bus service was critical to economy travelers moving across a state that lacks comprehensive air service between cities like Billings and Helena.

Government agencies like the state Department of Corrections and Department of Health and Human Services relied on Rimrock to move people released from prison or returning home from drug and alcohol treatment. Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Anez said that department moves about 64 people a month on passenger bus at an average cost of about $47 a person.

The Montana Chemical Dependency Center in Butte graduates about 55 people a month and about 42 percent of those use the bus to get home, said Jon Ebelt of Health and Human Services.

Forseth said many of the violations cited by FMCSA were minor, but they added up.

“What happens is they have all of these items, several items from cracked wheels to a little as corrosion on battery terminals. And of course if you start adding stuff like that up and they say ‘well, this is out of service and that is out of service,’ because any of that means a bus is out of service. And they called their bosses in D.C. and they said well shut them down.”

Forseth said the family bus company had expanded in recent years, picking up more business as Greyhound left the state. Later Rimrock Stages expanded, offering service from Missoula to Kalispell and from Helena to Great Falls. That expansion stressed the company. As it works to get reapproved by the federal government, Rimrock will have to review its ability to deliver the amount of service it was providing, he said.

Federal officials put motor carriers on notice in February that “a targeted safety crackdown using specially trained investigator teams” would be focusing on high-risk motorcoach companies.Those inspections were to focus on operating schedules, equipment storage and driver qualifications.

Announcing the crackdown Feb. 13, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood specifically cited recent bus crashes in Oregon and California in calling for a need to “transform the safety culture through the motorcoach industry.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration also released a mobile phone application so passengers could easily review a company’s safety record and file a complaint from the road if their bus was broken down.

Not only did the application list Rimrock as unauthorized to operate Monday, it also didn’t list even one safe commercial carrier in the state of Montana.

Rimrock has had three accidents in the past year. On Jan. 8, 2012 a Rimrock Stages bus wreck east of Missoula killed two people and injured 32 when the bus slid on black ice and crashed.

That same month, a Rimrock Stages bus carrying Billings West High School students went off the road injuring two students, an assistant coach and the bus driver.

Currently, Billings School District 2 has a bus contract with another company.

On May 22, 2012, a Rimrock Stages bus hit a pickup on U.S. Highway 93 near Arlee, injuring eight people. The pickup had pulled in front of the bus, slowed and turned left. The Montana Highway Patrol faulted both the bus and pickup driver for the wreck, saying the bus driver reacted too late.

Those accidents were not cited in the federal order filed last Friday.

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