British transport firm National Express Group's full-year profit rose on strong performance at its U.S. school bus and UK coach divisions, and said it was confident about growth in 2012.

The company also said it was not looking to exit its UK rail business, which accounted for 31 percent of its 2011 revenue, despite the loss of a contract that would significantly reduce its exposure to rail.

National Express said it expected passenger revenue to continue to grow in its bus and coach divisions in 2012, and raised its final dividend by 8.3 percent.

There has been a dramatic turnaround in passenger numbers in the last six months, Chief Executive Dean Finch said on a call with reporters.

Passenger journeys rose by 5.4 million journeys to 656.6 million in 2011.

National Express is benefitting from an increase in the use of public transport prompted by higher fuel costs, expensive rail travel and rising car park fees in city centres.

Its order value at the end of 2011 was 3.7 billion pounds.

Full-year pretax profit rose to 180.2 million pounds, from 160.5 million pounds a year ago. Revenue rose 5 percent to 2.24 billion pounds.

National Express' North America revenue jumped 5 percent in 2011 as budget constraints at U.S. schools encouraged the use of outsourced bus operations.

In 2011, the company had offered to buy U.S. student bus company Petermann Partners for $200 million to boost its market share.

National Express said it was in advanced discussions with regulators regarding antitrust approval and expected to close the deal in the first half of 2012.

Its UK coach business -- which provides airport, long-haul and commuter services -- saw revenue grow 4 percent.

Brokerage Investec Securities raised its rating on the stock to buy from hold, and said the recovery at National Express was largely complete.

COMMITTED TO RAIL

National Express' future in rail has been in doubt ever since it was stripped off the East Coast rail route by the British government in 2009. The contract ended in February 2012.

In Wednesday's statement, National Express said it had placed bids for three new rail contracts -- Essex Thameside, Great Western and Thameslink services.

It is still unclear whether National Express has a long term future in UK rail, Panmure Gordon & Co analyst Gert Zonneveld wrote in a note following the company's full-year results.

A company spokeswoman said while the company was not looking to dispose the UK rail business, its growth plan does not rely on rail.

Smaller exposure to rail would help National Express as expensive fares are pushing people towards bus and coach services, rather than rail.

National Express shares, valued at 1.12 billion pounds, were trading up 3.5 percent at 228.9 pence at 1138 GMT on Wednesday on the London Stock Exchange.

(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi in Bangalore; Editing by Roshni Menon)