New companies provide fewer bus service options – Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Laura Lundquist of the Chronicle wrote an insightful piece about the economics of intercity bus service.
http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/economy/article_08343272-a4cc-11e3-be27-001a4bcf887a.html

“A year after Montana lost its homegrown bus company, many towns still don’t have reliable or affordable bus service. That’s not uncommon in a rural state, but bus companies aren’t helping.”

Service between Butte, Helena, and Great Falls to be restored February 20, 2014

Salt Lake Express announced today that they will begin intercity bus service between Butte, Helena, and Great Falls starting February 20th.  Stops on the route will include Great Falls, Ulm Junction, Cascade, Craig Junction, Wolf Creek, Helena, Boulder, Basin, and Butte. This new service will connect at the Butte Bus Transfer Center with the Salt Lake Express bus to Rexburg, Idaho Falls, Pocatello, and Salt Lake City via I-15; and the Jefferson Lines I-90 eastbound and westbound routes to Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, and points beyond.

Great Falls to Butte southbound via I-15: Great Falls 3:15pm; Helena 5:00pm; arriving in Butte at 6:15pm.

Butte to Great Falls northbound via I-15: Butte 6:45pm; Helena 8:00pm;  arriving in Great Falls at 9:45pm.

To see all Salt Lake Express schedules or make reservations visit www.SaltLakeExpress.com or call 1-800-356-9796.

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Salt Lake Express previously operated this service last summer but due to low ridership it was terminated until a funding source could be found.  Montana Department of Transportation and Salt Lake Express have been working on restoring the connection since that time, culminating in a signed contract today.  Funding comes from the Federal Transit Administration 5311(f) Intercity Bus Program, which is designed to connect rural communities into urban cities as well as connect to the national bus network.

Salt Lake Express’s goal is to reach all rural and urban communities with their own connections as well as coordinating with numerous other providers throughout the state in these regions they serve. This goal of connectivity is shared by Montana Transportation Department.

About Salt Lake Express: Currently Salt Lake Express provides service from Rexburg, ID to Salt Lake City, UT (11 times daily), Salt Lake City, UT to Provo, UT (2 times daily), Idaho Falls, ID to Butte, MT (2 times daily), Rexburg, ID to West Yellowstone, MT (2 times daily), Rexburg, ID to Jackson, WY(2 times daily), Pocatello, ID to Boise, ID (2 times daily), Logan, UT to Salt Lake City, UT (11 times daily), Logan, UT to Rexburg, ID (5 times daily), and points in between. All these routes connect to each other in a timely fashion with very few layovers and waiting time. Seamless connectivity throughout this region has been achieved as a result of an outstanding management team.  Tom Price, the owner of Salt Lake Express has won awards for his business. He was named Businessman of the Year by the Rexburg Chamber of Commerce and has led the Salt Lake Express administration team to success by his wisdom, perseverance and inspiration. Tom was quoted regarding this project, “This is a great additional connection for us.  This will allow the people living in this corridor to have access to all the destinations we serve as well as into the National Bus Network which includes the continental U.S.  This gives them more options for transportation.  We are excited to partner with Montana Transportation Department on this project!”

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Overall status of Montana’s intercity bus network: With the addition of this route, all communities that had intercity bus service prior to March 2013 when Rimrock Trailways shut down now have service, but at a lower frequency.

  • I-15 has 1 round trip per day instead of 2
  • US 93 has 1 round trip instead of 2
  • Missoula-Bozeman,Billings has 2 round trips instead of 3, with the east-west route that went from Missoula through Helena to Bozeman eliminated.
  • Travel from Great Falls and Helena to Missoula, Billings, and Bozeman is worse than pre-March service, requiring a detour through Butte.

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Update: 2/19/2013: Montana’s media coverage is shown below.

Bus route along I-15 to resume Thursday – Helena Independent Record
Whether you need to go to Salt Lake City, Fort Belknap or only Great Falls, a bus will be able to take you there, beginning Thursday. Bus service is being restored along Interstate 15 from Butte to Great Falls with a stop in Helena. The service had been …

Bus route resumes Thursday between Butte and Great Falls  – Montana Standard
Starting Thursday, cost for a one-way Salt Lake Express bus ticket from Butte to Great Falls is $47.75; a round trip ticket is double that amount at $95.50. A one-way ticket from Dillon to Butte costs $31.50; a round-trip ticket costs $63. Salt Lake Express …

On the road again: Intercity bus service restored to I-15 corridor from Butte to …  Great Falls Tribune
Francis Skinner is a driver for the Fort Belknap Super Shuttle, which provides passenger service from Fort Belknap to Great Falls twice a week. Salt Lake Express will begin passenger bus service from Great Falls to Butte Thursday, a route that was …

New bus service along I-15 begins Thursday KXLF Butte News
HELENA – Montanans between Butte and Great Falls will have a new transportation option starting Thursday, when Salt Lake Express will launch service with stops at Ulm Junction, Cascade, Craig, Wolf Creek, Helena, Boulder, and Basin. The company plans

Bus company to offer service between Butte, Great Falls
The Missoulian
lost routes after Rimrock Stages’ shutdown. BILLINGS – Bus riders traveling west and east between Billings and Missoula have three daily round trips to choose from again. Read more · Rimrock Stages president says Montana-based bus company will reopen.

Intercity Bus Service Restored To I-15 Corridor From Butte To Great Falls – Beartooth NBC
Salt Lake Express announced today that they will begin intercity bus service between Butte, Helena, and Great Falls starting February 20th, serving eight communities on the I-15 corridor north of Butte that have been without service since last summer.

Missoula to Whitefish Service Launched by Salish Kootenai Tribes

In mid-December, Flathead Transit began operating an intercity route providing connections to Greyhound in Missoula, Amtrak in Whitefish, and local and regional services in Missoula and Kalispell. The route operates seven days a week, serving eight communities between Missoula and Whitefish. Ronan will be added as a ninth community if a business can be found to host a stop. The information in this update is from a December 10, 2013 article in the Missoulian announcing the new service.

Highlights of the new service:

  • This returns service to a corridor previously served by Rimrock Trailways between Missoula and the Flathead Valley.
  • Flathead Transit is a service of the Confederated and Salish Kootenai Tribes, and this is the first time Greyhound has collaborated with an Indian tribe to offer bus service.
  • The route is being funded using federal funds ($204,688) administered through the Montana Department of Transportation, and funding from Greyhound ($133,934). No state or local funds are being used.
  • A 17-passenger cutaway bus from Flathead Transit’s existing fleet is being used.

Schedule:

Missoula to Whitefish – Missoula 11:30 a.m. – Evaro 11:50 a.m. – Arlee 12:00 p.m. – Ravalli 12:10 p.m. – St. Ignatius 12:15 p.m. – Pablo 1 p.m. – Polson 1:25 p.m. – Lakeside 2:10 p.m. – Kalispell 2:30 p.m. – Whitefish 3:10 p.m.

Whitefish to Missoula – Whitefish 4:45 p.m. – Kalispell 5:25 p.m. – Lakeside 5:45 p.m. – Polson 6:30 p.m. – Pablo 6:40 p.m. – St. Ignatius 7:40 p.m. – Ravalli 7:45 p.m. – Arlee 7:55 p.m. – Evaro 8:05 p.m. – Missoula 8:25 p.m.

Tickets:

A one-way ticket between Missoula and Whitefish costs $31. Tickets cost less for shorter trips – a one-way ticket between Missoula and Polson costs $19.

Tickets can be purchased at the Greyhound Terminal in Missoula, Stuart’s Cenex in St. Ignatius, Quick Silver in Pablo, Kwa Taq Nuk Resort in Polson; and Brian’s Conoco in Kalispell. Tickets can also be purchased online from Greyhound’s website, and from any Greyhound selling locations nationwide.

Recent service in Montana and North Dakota

I have been asked to share a description of services that Montana had prior to March 26, 2013. I pulled this map from Rimrock’s website. The map is not totally accurate. The corridor shown in red had two round trips per day through Butte, and one from Bozeman-Three Forks-Townsend-Helena-Drummond-Missoula.

In combination, intercity providers usually operate on the following corridors that start or pass through Montana:

  • The corridor between Missoula and Billings usually is served with three round trips a day. Two round trips run on I-90 through Butte. The third round trip passes through Helena. Two of the three routes are currently being operated by Jefferson Lines
  • Greyhound operates two round trips connecting Missoula to Seattle.
  • Jefferson Lines runs one round trips a day between Billings and Fargo, snaking between I-94 and US 2 through Miles City, Glendive, Sidney, Williston, Bismarck, and Fargo.
  • There currently is no intercity service on US 93 between Missoula and Whitefish
  • Usually an intercity operator will run one round trip a day on I-15 between Butte and Great Falls, and a second round trip between Great Falls and Helena with timed connections to Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, and points beyond. These routes are no longer in service.
  • North Central Transit travels between Fort Belknap and Great Falls via Havre on Tuesdays and Thursdays
  • Northern Transit Interlocal runs one round trip a day between Shelby and Kalispell on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
  • Northern Transit Interlocal operates two round trips a day between Shelby and Great Falls on Monday and Thursday
  • Salt Lake Express runs two round trips a day on I-15 between Butte and Salt Lake City via Idaho Falls
  • Arrow/Black Hills Stage Lines runs twice a day between Billings and Denver. One route runs through Lovell. The other route runs through Sheridan, Wyoming.
  • This Amtrak schedule operates on the Highline across northern Montana and North Dakota.

Greyhound, Salt Lake Express, Arrow/Black Hills Stage Lines, and Jefferson operate 365 days a year and are interlined. Rimrock’s old schedules are listed below.

Salt Lake Express cancels service between Butte and Great Falls

UPDATE: As of February 2014, US 93 has one round trip per day. I-15 will have one round trip per day between Great Falls, Helena, and Butte starting February 20th..

ORIGINAL POST: Salt Lake Express just announced that, effective August 21st, they will be cancelling Route SLE0073 and SLE0074 from Great Falls, MT to Butte, MT on I-15.

Until someone steps in to fill the service, this means Helena and Great Falls will have no intercity service. The only intercity service in Montana will be on I-90 and I-94.

Loss of Intercity Service and Connections

UPDATE: Helena and Great Falls lost service, but one round trip per day should be reinstated in February 2014. As of February 14, 2014 U.S. 93 has one round trip per day.

ORIGINAL POST: We got some bad news last week when Rimrock told the Montana Department of Transportation they would not return to the intercity business. Couple this with Salt Lake Express cutbacks in early July, and intercity travel in Montana is pretty bad with no obvious path back to normal.

Bad Connections – loss of service has lead to broken connections. Layovers in Butte are as follows:

  • Missoula to Helena–5 hr 40 min
  • Great Falls-Helena-Billings–7 hr 35 min
  • Salt Lake City-Idaho Falls-Dillon-Billings–10 hr 10 min in am, 8hr 40min  in pm.

Summary of services - The level of service in Montana today is about 50% to 60% what was available prior to Rimrock’s March shutdown. Services are listed below.

I-90 Missoula to Billings

  • Jefferson Lines (JLI) operates 2 round trips per day with stops in Butte, Bozeman, and Livingston
  • Salt Lake Express (SLE) cancelled the third round trip, which went through Helena
  • No on-call stops in Laurel, Columbus, Big Timber, Belgrade, Livingston, Three Forks, Whitehall and Deer Lodge

I-15 Great Falls to Butte and Butte to Idaho Falls

  • SLE service between Great Falls, Helena, and Butte cut to one round trip per day
  • Two round trips per day from Butte to points south

US 93 from Missoula to Whitefish

  • No interlined service
  • Confederated Salish Kootenai Transit has applied for an FMCSA license and is investigating the feasibility of providing intercity service

Articles

Some of this has not yet been published in the newspapers. The most recent article is available at the Billings Gazette

Rimrock Stages may not resume all of its routes – Billings Gazette July 14, 2013

What’s Next

Different players are talking to look for ways around the barriers. The loss of service is not due to lack of demand. Rather it’s the result of business decisions to focus on the most profitable routes, the difficulty of serving a large remote geography, and the challenge of having an adequate fleet and staff to meet federal regulations (FMCSA safety requirements, Americans with Disabilities requirements for accessibility, and federal procurement rules as administered by each state).

Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is talking with the private and public carriers to find a way to restore service with help from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) 5311(f) rural intercity bus program. For this to happen the carriers will need to conclude that the administrative expense and risk of working with another governmental entity (MDT) is worth the benefit.  The carriers will also need to conclude that serving a rural area far from home base is a good business decision when they have higher revenue potential closer to home.

Early summer update

UPDATE: Rimrock succeeded at getting a conditional FMCSA rating change but made a business decision not to return to service due to a changing market in Montana. Currently Jefferson Lines is serving I-90 and the Salish Kootenai Tribe is serving US 93. MDT is in discussion with a carrier to return service to I-15.

ORIGINAL POST: While Salt Lake Express and Jefferson Lines have been providing services to Montanans, North Dakotans, and people traveling to or through these states, Rimrock has been busy at work as well. Last week I heard that FMCSA has granted a conditional rating change, and Rimrock is setting a plan to return to operation. In summary, here is the latest publicly available information:

  • Pending FMCSA approval, Rimrock intends to reinstate their services between Missoula and Billings, three round trips per day. Two of those trips will go through Butte, one through Helena. These services are currently operated by Salt Lake Express and Jefferson Lines.
  • Rimrock also hopes to re-establish their route on I-15 from Great Falls to Butte. This is currently operated by Salt Lake Express, and will take longer to return to Rimrock operation than the I-90 route.
  • There is an interested party for operating the intercity route from Missoula to Kalispell, and they have started taking some steps in that direction. I’m not sure where they stand on their decision making process.
  • Montana DOT Transit Section has grant funds available starting with the new state fiscal year, July 1. They are using the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) 5311(f) rural intercity bus program, a program that has been in place since 1991. This program can fund the net operating deficit for intercity bus routes. Operators must meet the requirements of FMCSA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 5311(f) program. This program has the potential to build effective, coordinated connections between Montana and North Dakota communities.

Want to learn more about intercity bus transportation? Here you go…

Definition of Intercity Transportation

Intercity bus services are generally considered to provide long-distance travel and offer passengers the ability to travel with luggage.  Effective intercity transportation services connect with other local and intercity transportation services to provide passengers access to destinations throughout the state, nation, and continent.  The network of interconnecting transportation services includes non-subsidized services such as Greyhound and I-90 between Missoula and Billings, as well as transportation services funded in part through the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) 5311(f) Rural Intercity Program and other publicly-funded sources.

Intercity bus transportation is part of the nation’s overall surface transportation network and holds particular importance for otherwise isolated small urban communities and rural areas. In such areas, intercity buses provide links among smaller communities within a region and, importantly, to larger urban areas that offer services and opportunities not available in the less-populated regions of the country.  In many of these areas, air or passenger rail travel options may not be available, or may be cost-prohibitive.

As major intercity carriers have abandoned less productive routes, FTA has made available funds to support the connection between these rural areas and the larger regional or national system of intercity bus service.

Section 5311(f) Program History

In 1991, federal funding became available for intercity bus service in rural areas through the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) 5311(f) program.  Recognizing the importance rural area transit and the financial struggles faced by the transit industry following deregulation in 1982, Congress included federal funding for rural intercity bus service in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and continued the funding in subsequent transportation authorizations.  This change in policy made intercity bus service one facet of a larger effort to maintain and improve rural public transit.

5311(f) funds are allowable for intercity routes that are not profitable. A goal of a successful program is to increase ridership and revenue on funded routes, resulting in reduced funding on a specific route and addition of routes over time.

Entities eligible to apply for Intercity Bus funds include local governmental agencies, private nonprofit organizations, Native American Nations on federal reservations, operators of public transportation services and private for-profit operators of transit services.