Investment: Stagecoach's run has not been derailed yet

IS THE Stagecoach juggernaut in danger of grinding to a halt? After an almost seamless rise since flotation in 1993 the shares have taken a knock, shedding a quarter of their value in the past three months.

They have firmed up recently, closing up 39p at 1,130p yesterday, after the group cleared a key regulatory hurdle in its purchase of 49 per cent of Richard Branson's Virgin Rail. The placing of stock worth about pounds 38m to finance the pounds 146m deal was also well received.

However, the rebound is unlikely to silence the Stagecoach bears. They warn that, with a large chunk of the UK bus market, a rail franchise and a train leasing company, Stagecoach is running out of options for expansion. This will force Brian Souter, the company's resourceful chairman, into risky ventures to keep the earnings momentum going.

The sceptics say the punt on Virgin Rail, with its appalling performance record, and the recent purchase of a stake in a company running toll roads in China, are perfect examples of this daredevil approach.

But the argument that Mr Souter is going to get it wrong sooner or later largely misses the point. This is not a steady-as-she-goes transport company such as National Express or First Group.

Stagecoach is more like an investment fund with a transport bias. High- risk, high-growth investments are part and parcel of its strategy, as its past record shows.

As such, Stagecoach will have plenty of opportunities to expand. Regional airports (Stagecoach already runs Prestwick), a US train company or even a low-cost airline - rumours point to easyJet - all fall into this category.

The shares are now on around 18 times 1999 earnings forecasts of around pounds 210m. This is a 15 per cent premium to the market, but a discount to its rivals. Stagecoach remains a good long-term punt.