National Express on track for higher profit

Public transport group National Express said today it had continued to trade in line with expectations so far this year after its torrid time in 2009.

In a final update ahead of its first half results, due to be announced at the end of next month., National Express said its performance during the second quarter of 2010 had built on a good start to the year.

“Revenue trends have been resilient, whilst progress on cost saving programmes and delivery of a stronger operational focus across the business has accelerated,” said the group, who rail division runs most train services in Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk.

As a result, pre-tax profit for the six months to June 30, excluding exceptional items, was “expected to show good progress”, added the group, which has bus interests in North America and Spain as well as its UK rail, bus and coach operations.

In the UK, National Express said its profitability continued to benefit from an improved margin within its rail business, after its move to hand-back the loss-making East Coast franchise to the Government.

The decision to walk away from the East Coast operation, where revenues fell far short the group’s expectations when it tendered for the franchise, before the onset of recession, saw the then Labour government threaten to strip National Express of its two other franchises, National Express East Anglia and south Essex commuter route c2c.

In the event, the government decided only to exercise clauses to end the contracts in 2011. During the saga, National Express was also at the centre of a lengthy takeover battle, saw its previous chief executive, Richard Bowker, quit to take up a job overseas and was forced to tap shareholders for cash to reduce its �1billion debt mountain.

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The new coalition government’s decision to postpone the reletting of the East Anglian rail franchise was today welcomed by National Express which said the move “enables us to explore opportunities to continue to deliver our industry-leading rail performance beyond early 2011”.

National Express said that revenue from its UK bus operations was “only marginally” down so far this year, despite a reduced operating mileage.

A plan to improve bus margins, including fare changes, targeted fleet investment, measures to reduce driver wage costs and consultation on reducing depot capacity, was stillin progress but should start to benefit margin during the second half of this year.

Within the coach business, underlying revenue had grown 3% year-on-year, benefiting from strong Easter and May holiday travel, it added.

Dean Finch, National Express Group chief executive, said: “With fundamentally strong businesses across the group, National Express now has a greater operational focus.

“The initiatives we have put in place will progressively improve our performance from the second half year onwards, driving earnings and cash generation.”