Waiting for the bus

On Tuesday morning at the Missoula bus depot, Tim Reid had just arrived from Washington, D.C., and was eager to get back to Polson. A woman working at the bus depot counter informed him, however, that bus service to Polson is no longer offered.

Reid could only shake his head and walk outside. He sat on a bench next to his four overstuffed bags, not far from two Rimrock Stages coaches that sat idle. Reid didn't know yet how he'd get to his destination. After so many hours on the road, he couldn't even articulate his frustration. "I'm sorry, I've been on a bus for four days," he said.

Reid is one of hundreds of travelers who have been stranded and rerouted as a result of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's March 22 shutdown of Montana's only commercial passenger bus service, Rimrock Stages.

During an inspection of the Billings-based company's fleet, FMCSA discovered 79 federal safety violations, including 33 that individually mandated the vehicles be placed out of service.

FMCSA found that Rimrock did not have controls in place to ensure that its buses were mechanically sound. "These violations and conditions of operation substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death," the administration stated in its March 22 order.

The inspection came on the heels of a federal crackdown sparked by two high-profile crashes last winter, one in San Bernardino, Calif., and another in eastern Oregon. The incidents, which killed a total of 17 people and injured dozens more, prompted FMCSA on Feb. 14 to announce that it would aggressively inspect what it called "high-risk motorcoach companies."

Rimrock has had three accidents in the past year, with one accident causing two fatalities.

Rimrock's shutdown is prompting other operators to fill the gap. Last weekend, Minnesota-based Jefferson Lines began running a once-daily trip between Missoula and Billings. Idaho operator Salt Lake Express, meanwhile, aims to launch two additional trips daily between Billings and Missoula. The north-south route between Missoula and the Flathead remains unserved.

Rimrock Stages, meanwhile, is committed to resuming service. Jean Forseth, whose family owns the company, says that though it has been a financial challenge, Rimrock has made the required repairs and is waiting for clearance from FMCSA.

"Without income coming in, it's getting tougher," she says.

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