National Express buys US school bus firm

NATIONAL EXPRESS yesterday became America's third-biggest school bus player by buying its fourth-largest operator for pounds 109m. Purchase of the Texas-based Durham Transportation makes a total fleet of 5,600 vehicles transporting 115 million pupils a year.

A scramble has broken out among UK bus operators to snap up US school bus businesses. Last month FirstGroup paid pounds 600m for the second-largest operator, Ryder Public Transportation Services.

The US school bus market is worth $13bn and is growing strongly with a second baby boom. There are some 5,000 operators, mainly very small businesses, and only 30 per cent of school bus services have so far been let to private contractors.

Durham Transportation has 3,500 buses and transports 430,000 students a day in Texas, California, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Last year it made pre-tax profits of $14.1m (pounds 8.6m) on turnover of $104m.

This is National Express's fourth purchase of a US school business. It acquired Crabtree-Harmon for pounds 12m in 1998 and Chicago-based Robinson Bus Service this February for pounds 14m. It also bought the much smaller Bauman Bus for an undisclosed sum.

Phil White, chief executive of National Express, aims to convert more school bus services from public to private and consolidate the market. The chief executive of Durham, Larry Durham, will run all National Express's US operations.

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