National Express calls for rail champion

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The Independent Online

The chief executive of National Express yesterday called for the creation of a national UK rail champion to prevent the industry from falling into the hands of state-controlled foreign train operators.

The chief executive of National Express yesterday called for the creation of a national UK rail champion to prevent the industry from falling into the hands of state-controlled foreign train operators.

Phil White said it was a matter of "patriotic pride" that the UK had a rail company big enough to compete for franchises with continental rivals. "If we are not very careful the UK will get left behind," he said. "I am passionate about creating a business which is big enough to carry the UK flag."

His comments came as overseas train operators queue up to bid for UK rail franchises. Swiss Rail last week announced that it was teaming up with John Laing to bid for two busy commuter routes in the south of England while the Dutch state railway has joined forces with FirstGroup to bid for South West Trains. The two French companies, SNCF and Connex, are already involved in running UK franchises and a third French consortium, C3D, has launched a hostile bid for Go-Ahead, owner of Thames Trains and Thameslink. Meanwhile, there is speculation that a Swedish company is set to launch a bid for a passenger franchise.

National Express is the UK's biggest train operator with seven franchises. Earlier this year it took over Prism, adding the London-Tilbury-Southend line, now called c2c, and the Stansted Express to its five existing franchises.

Mr White said there was scope for two big integrated UK transport groups operating both bus and rail services. In the past, National Express has toyed with the idea of merging with FirstGroup, which owns three rail franchises but FirstGroup has proved cool on the idea.

The alternative for National Express would be to pick up individual franchises, although there are very few groups operating just one rail route. Mr White said National Express was watching the situation at Go-Ahead with interest but did not plan to mount a rival bid.

He was speaking as National Express reported a 10 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £50.4m, before exceptionals, for the six months to the end of June.

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