Outlook: Ticket to ride

SUDDENLY AMERICA'S freeways have become clogged with British bus companies scrambling to buy up a slice of the action. National Express was actually there first, albeit in a small way, with the purchase of some modestly-sized school bus operators.

But FirstGroup's pounds 600m acquisition last month of Ryder, the second biggest player in the market, has encouraged Phil White to quicken the pace of National Express's expansion. Hence yesterday's pounds 109m purchase of the number four operator, Durham Transportation.

Stagecoach has also bought its way into the US bus transit business with the pounds 770m acquisition of Coach USA and may be tempted to expand into the student market

America is a big place and there is little overlap between the US operations of the rival British companies. The school bus market is also a highly fragmented one still run predominantly by public authorities, so there is lots of scope for contracting out and bolt-on acquisitions.

But the more buyers there are, the faster the prices will rise. America has proved a corporate graveyard for many a British company. National Express, FirstGroup and Stagecoach need to take care not to get taken for a ride.

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