By Scott Wright

SHARES in Scottish transport giants Stagecoach and FirstGroup leapt yesterday after hundreds of millions of pounds of public money was pledged to step up services in England as its journey out of lockdown continues.

Investors responded positively to the commitment by the Department of Transport (DfT) of a further £283 million to increase the frequency of bus, rail and light rail services for people who need to travel, including key NHS workers. Service capacities were drastically cut in March in response to social distancing measures introduced to help curb the spread of coronavirus.

The move to step up services again comes as government ministers in England are urging people to return to workplaces as the lockdown eases if they are unable to do their jobs at home.

UK ministers gave the green light for non-essential retail stores, including clothes, shoes, toys, and furniture shops, to begin re-opening in England from June 15. Outdoor markets and car showrooms will re-open in England from Monday (June 1).

Stagecoach noted in a statement to the stock market that bus operators are holding talks with the Scottish and Welsh Governments on how to re-introduce services in the devolved nations as the lockdown is gradually eased.

The fresh funding from the Dft includes £254m to support bus services and £29m for light rail.

News of the support sent shares in Perth-based Stagecoach soaring by nearly 14 per cent in early trading, before closing the day up 7.9%, or 4.7p, at 64.05p. FirstGroup shares closed up 6.6% at 56.9p.

Martin Griffiths, chief executive of Stagecoach, said: “We are pleased that the Government has recognised the importance of safe and sustainable public transport now and for the future.

“We are uniquely placed to drive the country’s recovery, helping rebuild our regional economies, reconnect people and their families, and support the country’s long-term objectives around decarbonisation, improved air quality and better health.

“This funding is designed to help transition our public transport networks from lockdown to more normal levels. It is important the right level of resources remain in place to ensure public transport operators can continue to provide local communities with the services they need.

“With the comprehensive safety measures we have put in place and the support of our passengers and our employees, we stand ready to restore our services to closer to pre-Covid levels. We will continue to work with our local authority partners and other key stakeholders on making the best use of increased capacity.”

The UK and Scottish Governments moved quickly to provide emergency funding to help ensure essential bus services could continue in the early stages of the pandemic.

In early April DfT unveiled a Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant under which it would provide £167 million over 12 weeks to help ensure operators could continue to provide services for key workers while facing greatly-reduced demand because of lockdown measures.

That came shortly after the Scottish Government pledged emergency support to ensure bus firms could maintain essential services in Scotland by maintaining payments of concessionary revenue and Bus Service Grant Operator payments at levels anticipated before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Stagecoach said it is now bringing back drivers and other staff it had put on furlough early in the crisis to plan for and deliver the step up in services in England.

It had initially planned to furlough around 55 per cent of drivers and engineers within is local bus companies as part of measures to save cash in response to the crisis, without providing specific numbers on the employees affected.