FirstGroup ahead of expectations as rail improves

Aberdeen-headquartered transport giant FirstGroup plc said it “anticipates that its FY 2024 group adjusted operating profit and group adjusted earnings will be slightly ahead of the board’s previous expectations” due to a slightly stronger performance in First Rail.

“The group anticipates to end its FY 2024 financial year in an adjusted net cash position of £60-70m, with c.£40m of the ongoing share buyback programme still to be completed post year-end,” said FirstGroup.

In a trading update, FirstGroup said trading in its First Rail division has been slightly ahead of the group’s expectations due to strong performance in the division’s “Open Access” operations “as a result of continued strong demand, effective yield management, and the settlement of certain one-off infrastructure and other claims during the period.”

The group said its Lumo train service has identified opportunities to extend a number of its daily London to Edinburgh journeys to Glasgow.

Discussions are in progress with Transport Scotland and Network Rail on final route options and timings, ahead of an application to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) for access rights.

If successful, the new services will be operated with the existing Lumo fleet of all-electric trains and it is anticipated that they could begin in the second half of the 2025 calendar year.

FirstGroup added: “On 5 January 2024, the group submitted to the ORR, the first phase of an application for a new Open Access rail service between London and Sheffield.

“The proposed service would be part of the group’s Hull Trains business and comprises two return journeys a day from London King’s Cross calling at Retford, Worksop, Woodhouse and Sheffield.

“A sizeable number of rail passengers currently drive to Doncaster station to pick up faster services to London rather than travelling via Sheffield; a new, convenient rail service from these local stations could help reduce the number of car journeys.

“The ORR consultation with industry partners has concluded. Capacity and performance modelling is now underway.

“The group is also working on the fleet strategy and is in discussions with rolling stock companies. It is anticipated that services could begin in the second half of the 2025 calendar year.”

The group said trading in the First Bus division is “strong and in line with the group’s expectations.”

Since the announcement of the H1 2024 results, FirstGroup has continued to opportunistically purchase its September 2024 6.875% bonds.

As a result of purchases totalling £75.9 million since November 23, 2023, £96.1 million of the bonds remain outstanding.

FirstGroup CEO Graham Sutherland said: “Our focus on operational delivery, driving demand for our services and growing and diversifying our portfolio has resulted in further progress in the second half of our financial year.

“This leaves us well positioned to create further sustainable value for all our stakeholders.”