Bus route connects Hi-Line to Butte and beyond


February 25, 2014

Caleb Hutchins

Those taking advantage of North Central Montana Transit's route to Great Falls can now continue their trip to Butte and neighboring states.

Salt Lake Express has rebooted its Great Falls-Helena-Butte line and is available for people traveling on the the local transit system from the Hi-Line to Great Falls to go as far as Provo, Utah, and Boise, Idaho.

Jim Lyons, the director of transportation for NCMT, said this development has not changed anything from the way NCMT was running before, but they may see more business because of it.

"It's nothing different from what we were doing before," Lyons said. "I would imagine, on a weekly basis, we would see three or four people (using the connection), if not more."

NCMT takes the trip from Fort Belknap to Great Falls, making several stops along the way, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Lyons said NCMT was approached to provide the service from Great Falls to Butte after SLE canceled the line last summer, but SLE came back into the picture and took the line back up after interest in it resurfaced.

"There was no ground transportation south of Great Falls before (SLE started back up again) ... ," Lyons said. "It also allows people to come up through Great Falls, and we can bring them this direction."

A press release from SLE says they picked up the line when Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration inspectors shut down the Billings-based Rimrock Stages bus fleet.

"Salt Lake Express operated the route last summer, but ridership was not high enough for it to be financially viable, so service was terminated until a funding source could be found," the press release says.

"This is a great additional connection for us," Tom Price, the owner of SLE, said in the press release. "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."

Though the line re-establishes ground transportation from Utah to the Hi-Line, the timing of the routes is slightly inconvenient, Lyons said, especially for the Great Falls-Butte line.

"The connectivity is not as good as it was before," Lyons said.

SLE starts off from Great Falls at 3:15 p.m., reaches Helena at 5:45 and arrives in Butte at 6:15. The return trip begins at 6:45 p.m. in Butte, reaches Helena at 8 and arrives in Great Falls at 9:45.

NCMT's Fort Belknap-Great Falls line starts in Fort Belknap at 6:40 a.m., reaches Havre at 7:40 and arrives in Great Falls at 10:10. The return trip starts from Great Falls at 2:15 p.m., reaches Havre at 4:40 and arrives at Fort Belknap at 6:20.

The trouble, for example, with someone taking the SLE from Butte on a Monday would arrive in Great Falls at 9:45 p.m. and have to wait 16 hours and 30 minutes overnight to catch the NCMT bus out of Great Falls to the Hi-Line. This is the shortest amount of time one could wait traveling north on the two services.

Traveling south is less time-consuming. Arriving in Great Falls from the Hi-Line on a Tuesday or Thursday and then connecting to the SLE would include a five-hour and five-minute layover in Great Falls.

Though these times might be undesirable to some, the price is right. NCMT charges $10 for a one-way ticket on their Fort Belknap-Great Falls line and SLE charges around $50 for a one-way ticket from Great Falls to Butte.

A plane ticket search for one-way flights from one ticket source in late March showed tickets from Great Falls to Helena are $84. For people on the Hi-Line, that still means getting to the airport in Great Falls. Adding $10 to to plane ticket price for the bus ride to Great Falls makes it $94. From the Helena airport to Butte, a bus ticket is over $30, pushing the price to over $120.

For those interested in planning their own trip, visit the bus lines' websites for more information. Tickets can be reserved on Salt Lake Express's website.


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