Train and bus group signals higher profit

COACH, bus and trains operator National Express said yesterday that revenues were up across its UK businesses as it raised its forecast for full-year profits.

In a trading update ahead of its annual results, National Express (NX), whose rail businesses include the East Anglia franchise and south Essex commuter route c2c, said its Spanish and North American coach businesses were also in growth.

The profits upgrade follows quicker-than-expected success for moves by the group to improve margins within its UK bus division to industry-average levels.

A restructuring of the business has involved improving frequencies on busier routes while cutting back on quieter services, together with reducing the discount on standard single fares for those buying multi-trip travelcards.

“The board now expects normalised profit before tax for 2010 to be a little above current market expectations and markedly stronger than was expected back in January 2010,” said NX yesterday.

The group launched the recovery plan for its UK bus division in June and said that the results so far had enabled it to launch a five-year investment plan to improve its fleet.

In the West Midlands, the key market for the division which also operates many routes in East Anglia, underlying revenues growth was 1.5% higher since July, it added.

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NX said its rail business would show underlying revenues growth of 7% for the fourth quarter, and confirmed its intention to bid to retain both the East Anglia and c2c franchises.

The previous government planned to terminate the current East Anglia franchise next April, refusing a potential three-year extension following the decision by NX to walk away from its loss-making franchise to run services on the East Coast main line between London and Scotland. The new coalition has extended the current deal until October 2011, from when it plans to appoint an interim operator for the next 12 months ahead of awarding a new model of franchise running for 15 years.

NX said yesterday it planned to bid for both the short-contract extension and the longer-term franchise for East Anglia, and would also re-tender for c2c services in 2013.

The group added that its UK coach division had seen revenues growth of 3% in the year to date while its airports business had renewed its contract with BAA to operate Heathrow Central bus station.

It said the axing of the current government-funded senior citizen concessionary fare scheme in October 2011 was not expected to hit the coach business.

Overseas, the group said its Also coach business in Spain had returned to underlying revenue growth for the first time since 2008 while its North American business had seen underlying revenues growth 6% year-on-year since September following the launch of 1,600 new routes.

NX chief executive Dean Finch said the group had achieved “tremendous progress” during the past year.

He said: “We will complete our business recovery programme ahead of schedule, and will look to grow our bus, coach and rail portfolio, leveraging our international presence, and delivering value for customers, stakeholders and investors alike.”

NX suffered a torrid 2009 when it survived a hostile takeover bid by the Spanish Cosmen family, a major shareholder, as well as a threat by the then government to strip it of the East Anglia and c2c franchises following the group’s refusal to fund further losses within the East Coast business.

The group signed up to the East Coast franchise shortly before the recession hit, with the level of premium payable to the Treasury resulting in hefty losses when revenues declined.