AILING transport group National Express is eyeing a £350m cash call, it emerged yesterday, as the troubled group seeks to rebuff takeover bids.<br /><br />The move, which has received shareholder support, comes after the government last month stripped the company of its East Coast rail franchise when it warned it could no longer afford the £1.4bn franchise fee.<br /><br />It is hoping to shore up its balance sheet after last week reporting it lost more than £20m on the East Coast line in the first six months of the year. <br /><br />A rights issue would be a knock to bidders for the business, which include the Spanish Cosmen family and private equity firm CVC. Rival Stagecoach is also believed to be considering a bid for the group. <br /><br />Last week, National Express reported first-half pre-tax losses of £48.1m, down from £52.4m in profits from the same period the year before.<br /><br />Its exit from the East Coast route has led to warnings that National Express could be stripped of its remaining franchises: c2c and National Express East Anglia. National Express has said the government cannot legally take its remaining franchises away. <br /><br />There has also been heavy criticism of the franchise system, with those opposed to it saying it is too easy for companies to hand back loss-making lines. The group is also searching for a new chief executive after Richard Bowker resigned in the wake of the East Coast line scandal.<br /><br />National Express is being advised by Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.<br /><strong><br />FAST FACTS NATIONAL EXPRESS<br /></strong>The group made a pre-tax loss of £48.1m in the first six months of 2009, down from a profit of £52.4m last year. <br />Its East Coast Main Line franchise is set to go back into public ownership later this year.