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Herald View

FIRSTGROUP is one of Scotland's surviving 'big beasts' in the quoted sector.

Although its biggest business is running student buses in the US, it has the largest interest in rail of any UK operator and ScotRail is one of the jewels in its crown. Its keenness to retain the franchise it has held since 2004 has been sharpened by setbacks in recent weeks with the loss of the Essex Thameside territory, the £8.9 billion Thameslink super-franchise and the Caledonian Sleepers.

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That added to FirstGroup's traumatic experience in 2012 when the award of the lucrative West Coast line was rescinded, prompting a re-examination of the entire franchising process and ultimately the company's blockbusting £615 million rights issue a year ago.

The flagship Great Western franchise has been extended but with wings clipped, cutting profitability. The group must be nervous about the forthcoming verdicts on the prize East Coast franchise and on ScotRail, both expected in the autumn.

Chief executive Tim O'Toole insists the aim of winning 'two big and one small' franchises relates to 'a five-year view' and there are no 'must-wins'.

He may also hope the strong track record at ScotRail from 2004 to 2008 of National Express bid leader Mary Grant does not end up as a trump card.

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