SSP, the owner of Upper Crust and Ritazza coffee, used a ministerial directive obtained under freedom of information laws to gain an advantage in negotiations with railway station owners.
The tactic will allow the FTSE 250 company, one of the world’s biggest travel retailers, to slash rents owed to train operators that run most of the UK’s stations, at a cost of millions of pounds to taxpayers.
SSP wrote to the train companies saying that it was in receipt of a letter sent by the Department for Transport (DfT) as part of negotiations over steep rent cuts.
The correspondence was obtained by another catering firm and passed onto SSP. The letter from the DfT to station owners, sent in July and seen by The Telegraph, gave them licence to waive tenants’ rents alongside a number of other options.
“It is incumbent on [station owners] to actively consider any requests made for rent deferral or relief,” the letter read.
With passenger numbers falling 95pc earlier this year and remaining at around a third of pre-pandemic levels, train companies were urged to provide support.
Taxpayers would then be billed for the cost of the concessions under emergency rail agreements. It is understood that SSP’s annual station rent bill is roughly £12m.
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Train companies were angered at SSP’s reference to the correspondence from the DfT in its own letter. One rail industry source said: “It was like they said: ‘We know what you’re allowed to give us, so give it to us’.”
Network Rail, the taxpayer-backed owner of major stations such as London Waterloo, Victoria and Kings Cross, is in talks to waive September rents from tenants including SSP after foregoing those due in March and June.
The move angered commercial landlords and grassroots bodies, which accused the Network Rail of handing travel retailers a “backdoor bailout”.
The boss of SSP, which employs about 40,000 people worldwide, warned of “considerable job cuts” last week after revealing losses could top £250m. The company announced plans to axe 5,000 positions in July.
A spokesman for SSP said: “These are extraordinary times which have had a heavy impact on the sector. Our aim continues to be to re-open our units safely and serve the travelling public. Rental concessions are key to our ability to do that.
“Now that we understand the [station owners] have the clarity they need from the Government over the support available, we hope to be able to progress talks with them over rents.”