BILLINGS — The president of a Montana-based passenger bus company shut down by federal authorities over safety violations said Monday that he intends to re-open once the government’s demands are met, but he could not say how long that might take.
U.S. Department of Transportation safety regulators last week declared Rimrock Stages Inc. an imminent hazard to the public and revoked its operating authority after finding 79 safety violations in the 40-year-old Billings company’s bus fleet.
Alleged problems ranged from the company failing to keep vehicles repaired and inspected, to not ensuring the company’s mechanics were qualified. No penalties were issued but the investigation remains open.
Rimrock Stages president Tom Forseth said hundreds of passengers left stranded when the company’s operating authority was abruptly revoked Friday have since reached their destinations on chartered buses.
But the shutdown leaves Montana and North Dakota residents who don’t have their own vehicles few options for cross-state or interstate travel. There are no companies in Montana that offer comparable services, said Forseth and American Bus Association spokesman Dan Ronan.
“There’s a lot of people who ride the bus who are stuck,” Forseth said. “What we have to do is go forward and get ourselves in a position to say we’re up to snuff, and then we can go ahead and apply for operating authority and get back on the road.”
A Rimrock Stages bus crashed last year on Interstate 90 near Clinton, killing two people and injuring more than 30 others. The only prior fatal accident for the company came in 1984, Forseth said.
A spokesman for the Transportation Department’s Motor Carrier Safety Administration would not say if there was any connection between the Clinton accident and the loss of Rimrock Stage’s operating authority. Ronan said a connection was unlikely given that almost 15 months have passed since the crash.
Forseth said he will not appeal the government’s actions. He declined to comment on the specific safety lapses, but said the company has struggled to keep up with a major expansion two years ago when Greyhound Bus Lines pulled its operations from Montana and Rimrock took over its routes.
“It was too much, too soon maybe,” he said.
The company operates 14 buses. Five of those were on the road when the shutdown order was issued, forcing the company to leave the vehicles in place until arrangements can be made to get them back to Billings.
Of Rimrock’s 50 employees, Forseth said 35 drivers have been laid off. The remaining workers are mechanics and administrative personnel who will continue working to try to address the company’s safety problems, he said.
Motor Carrier Safety Administration spokesman Duane DeBruyne said there is no timeline under which the company must submit a corrective action plan that is required as one of the conditions for it to resume operations.
The investigation into Rimrock comes as the federal government conducts a nationwide crackdown on bus safety problems in the wake of fatal accidents in Oregon and California that killed a combined 17 people.
Nine bus companies have been shut down since the crackdown was announced last month. Ronan said his association supported the government’s efforts to get unsafe busses off the roads.
He added that the association was working with Rimrock to get its safety issues resolved as soon as possible.
“This is a company that’s been around a long time, and has provided a really important service to that part of the country,” he said. “We’re pretty convinced based on their past record they can turn this around.”
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