MORE THAN 2,500 Merseyside bus drivers were celebrating an early Christmas present last night after receiving a pounds 20,000 windfall from the local transport giant, MTL.
The company, which runs buses and trains in Liverpool and Merseyside, decided to return pounds 48m to its shareholders after plans for a stock market flotation and a sale of the business collapsed earlier this year.
MTL is the biggest transport operator in the region. It runs more than two-thirds of the buses in Liverpool and is responsible for the city's underground system. It also owns Northern Spirit, the rail company that operates the trans-Pennine express linking Manchester, Leeds, York and Newcastle upon Tyne.
The majority of MTL's shareholders are drivers and conductors, who bought the company from the state-owned Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority in 1992. A large number of the 6,900-strong workforce have increased their stakes since privatisation.
MTL employees hold on average 33,000 shares, giving them a windfall of about pounds 20,000 under the plans agreed yesterday. Most were encouraged to invest in the company by the prospect of a stock market flotation.
However, their chances of pocketing a lucrative windfall from a sale on the stock market were dashed earlier this year when the Office of Fair Trading, the competition watchdog, accused the company and nine other transport groups of price fixing. The OFT investigation scared off City investors and prompted MTL to scrap the flotation plans.
Hopes of a windfall were kept alive by rumours that MTL could be taken over by one of the national transport giants, such as Stagecoach or Go Ahead, for about pounds 120m.
After a flurry of speculation over the summer, MTL terminated the talks and with it the drivers' chances of a takeover bonus, amid rumours that the offers received were too low.
The company said yesterday that the pounds 20,000 award would be enough to compensate its employees for the wait. Peter Coombes, chairman and chief executive of MTL, said that the windfall offered shareholders "the opportunity to realise a significant amount of value" from their stakes.
Mr Coombes raised the prospect of a further payout in two or three years through a stock market flotation.
Analysts said that the chances of a listing were enhanced by the end of the OFT inquiry a fortnight ago after the bus companies agreed to abandon their deals on price fixing and market sharing.
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