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FirstGroup awaits funding news from England and Wales

bus services

Scottish transport giant FirstGroup has yet to secure an extension or replacement for bus recovery grant funding south of the border.

The Aberdeen-based company said in a trading update earlier today it was “engaging with” the Department for Transport regarding an extension to the scheme running in England until early April.

A recovery grant scheme in Wales is currently funded to the end of July 2022.

Passengers are returning to travel again following the easing of the Omicron-related restrictions put in place in December.

David Martin, executive chairman, FirstGroup.

Although all travel restrictions in England ended on February 24, passenger volumes there remain “significantly below” pre-pandemic levels, FirstGroup said.

Further financial support is needed to “maintain services and support the economic recovery”, the firm added.

Earlier this month the Scottish Government announced a new £94 million bus grant scheme, which includes an additional £40m to support passenger volume recovery.

The new funding programme in Scotland starts on April 1, replacing pandemic support arrangements which end on that date.

There was no update from FirstGroup on the hunt for a new chief executive following the departure of Matthew Gregory last autumn.

Matthew Gregory.

Mr Gregory quit after the firm’s largest shareholder, Coast Capital, called for him to go in a row over the sale of its First Student and First Transit businesses in North America.

The company then went on to complete the disposal of its iconic Greyhound inter-city coach business across the Atlantic, selling it to German firm FlixMobility for £125m.

Elsewhere in today’s trading statement, FirstGroup said current trading was in line with management’s expectations – notwithstanding the recent Omicron-related travel restrictions

Volumes at First Bus have improved to more than 70% of pre-pandemic levels overall and to around 75% across operations in England since the easing of Covid restrictions.

The bus operations have also been boosted in 2022 by the return to schools and universities after the Christmas and New Year period, when demand is typically lower.

Mileage reductions affecting some routes “have begun to ease as the number of employees self-isolating has reduced in recent weeks”, FirstGroup said.

“Buses have a central role to play in achieving many of society’s objectives”, the company said, adding: “The UK Government’s recently published Levelling Up White Paper reinforced the importance of public transport connectivity.”

FirstGroup – whose shares were up by nearly 3% at 101.8p at market close – also said its management fee-based rail operations were “delivering performance metrics in line with our expectations.”

One of FirstGroup’s Great Western Railway trains arriving at Bristol Temple Meads station.

Executive chairman David Martin added: “We now have a focused and simplified group, and continue to enhance our financial strength and resilience by proactively managing the legacy assets and liabilities associated with last year’s portfolio rationalisation.

“We are pleased that passengers are returning to travel again following the easing of the Omicron-related restrictions put in place in December.

“It demonstrates our conviction there is significant latent demand for travel on our services and we look forward to providing vital connections for our customers as the recovery continues to build.”

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