Belfast Telegraph

FirstGroup sees fall in rail passenger numbers as economic uncertainty bites

Transport giant FirstGroup has revealed falling rail passenger numbers as economic uncertainty and lower fuel costs dent demand for train travel.

The group saw a 0.1% fall in rail passenger numbers in its first half to September 30, while it also said its bus business remained under pressure as fewer shoppers hit the high streets.

Its half-year figures come less than a week after the tragic crash on Croydon Tramlink - operated by FirstGroup - which killed seven people and injured more than 50.

Tim O'Toole, chief executive of FirstGroup, said he was "shocked and saddened" by the crash and said the group was supporting investigations.

FirstGroup did not give any indication of the financial impact of the crash or update on investigations into the cause, although initial findings last week suggested the tram flipped on to its side after taking a sharp bend at excessive speed.

Mr O'Toole said: "On behalf of everyone at FirstGroup I would like to express our condolences to the bereaved families and friends and to those injured in this incident.

"We are working with Transport for London and the authorities to provide assistance in any way possible to those who have been affected and to the ongoing investigation."

FirstGroup's half-year results showed underlying pre-tax profits falling 2.2% to £21.9 million despite a 5.1% rise in revenues to £2.6 billion.

It said revenues at its First Rail arm fell 2.2% to £595.8 million, with like-for-like passenger revenues up 0.7%.

The group, which also owns the Great Western and TransPennine Express UK rail franchises and Hull Trains, blamed the 0.1% fall in rail passengers on a "slowdown in growth across the industry due to macroeconomic uncertainty, some one-off events and modal shift due to sustained lower fuel prices".

It also saw turnover at its bus arm fall 2.9% to £426.1 million, with like-for-like passenger revenue dropping by 1.3%.

The group said bus demand was being impacted by "muted high street retail footfall trends and worsening congestion affecting passenger demand in many of our markets, particularly in the North and Scotland".

But FirstGroup is hoping strong trading in its North American operations and the strong dollar will offset tough trading in the UK for full-year results.

It runs a school bus operation in the US, as well as the Greyhound long-distance coach business.