Stagecoach could be in for a very rough ride

Brian Cox, the chairman of South West Trains, must be used by now to apologising for cancellations; his long-suffering passengers are certainly used to taking his published timetables with generous helpings of Saxa. The one cancellation he will not be apologising for, however, is the craven decision of MPs to abandon today's scheduled grilling of SWT before the Commons Transport select committee.

The Conservative majority on the committee has decided that it would not be appropriate to continue with its work programme now that an election has been called. Nothing to do, you understand, with the appalling advertisement for rail privatisation that SWT has turned into.

Those who had been looking forward to some blood sport on the committee corridor of the Commons will have to console themselves instead with the press conference called by the Labour minority to protest at this blatant piece of politicking. Mr Cox's day will come, however. Presuming Labour does sweep to power, SWT may be in for a rougher ride than anything the select committee could throw at it.

That goes not just for SWT, but for its parent company, Stagecoach, too. In four short years the group has been transformed from a modest bus operator into one of the biggest quoted transport groups on the market by a combination of chairman Brian Souter's guile and the willingness of sober-suited bankers to throw money at him.

Stagecoach is a classic example of a business that has risen too fast on a tide of cheap paper, mounting debts and the deal-making reputation of one man. So far Mr Souter has had all the breaks. He spotted that the bus industry was being privatised in a way that put passengers very firmly in the back seat, leaving entrepreneurs such as him to drive what can only be described as a coach and horses through what passes for competition policy.

In the absence of any form of regulation for the bus industry, Stagecoach has made a fortune by crunching the competition and, along the way, the customer as well. Unfortunately, the railways are not turning out quite the same way. They have tiresome things like performance regimes, minimum standards and big fat fines for those who cut too many corners.

The City is belatedly waking up to the possibility that Stagecoach has over-extended itself. An incoming Labour government and a much more hostile regulatory environment may be all it takes to turn the run into a rout.

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