Profits rise at UK transport firm FirstGroup

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LONDON, Nov 6 (Reuters) - British transport firm FirstGroup (Frankfurt: FGR.F - news) posted a sharp rise in first half pretax profit on Wednesday, helped by strong growth at its British rail business.

The company said its underlying pretax profit rose 43.7 percent to 28.3 million pounds ($45.41 million) in the six months to the end of September on revenues 1.6 percent higher at 3.3 billion pounds.

Shares in the bus and rail operator are down 32 percent in 2013, compared to a 23 percent rise for the mid-cap FTSE 250 index, largely due to a heavily discounted rights issue in May to help pay down its debt.

Sales at FirstGroup (LSE: FGP.L - news) 's rail unit rose 7.6 percent during the period.

The group also said that trading was in line with its expectations and that management remained confident of achieving its medium term financial targets set out in May 2013.

FirstGroup Chief Executive Tim O'Toole said: "Over the past six months, we have worked hard to ensure we are positioned to deliver on our potential."

"We have strengthened our balance sheet through the rights issue, continued to drive the significant number of incremental operational enhancements required to yield better financial returns, and are making disciplined investments to benefit from the opportunities we see in our markets."

FirstGroup's chairman, Martin Gilbert, who announced in May that he was stepping down, added that the process to find his successor was underway and making progress.

Shares in FirstGroup closed at 116 pence on Tuesday, valuing the company at 1.4 billion pounds.