National Express investor builds stake

THE largest shareholder in public transport group National Express - owner of the East Anglia regional rail franchise - yesterday increased its stake in the company for the second time in less than a week.

THE largest shareholder in public transport group National Express - owner of the East Anglia regional rail franchise - yesterday increased its stake in the company for the second time in less than a week.

The latest swoop saw deputy chairman Jorge Cosmen buy 750,000 shares for �2.7 million, taking the Spanish family's share in the business to just under 19.5%.

The stake-building move will add to speculation that the Cosmens are manoeuvring to block a �360 million investor cash-call launched by the firm two weeks ago in a bid to repair its battered balance sheet.

The Cosmens - who abandoned their own attempts to buy National Express this year - have raised concerns that the firm had been too hasty in dismissing a recent merger approach from Stagecoach. Their latest stake-building comes soon after an earlier �1.7 million swoop for more than 500,000 shares.

One analyst who did not wish to be named said yesterday: “It looks like they are trying to amass as much of a blocking stake as possible.”

However, the Spanish family faces an uphill task to prevent the rights issue going ahead as National Express only needs a simple majority of voting shareholders to proceed.

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Mr Cosmen wants the group to look at further potential deals before the launch of a rights issue, which would cost the family around �70 million to support to prevent their stake being diluted.

He believes National Express “lacks strong management, a clear strategy and long term financial security”.

The Cosmens were angered by the group's decision late last month to end merger talks with Stagecoach and urged the board to seek independent advice.

But National Express said at the time it wanted to end uncertainty because unless a merger could be completed by the end of the year it would face a breach of banking covenants and resulting higher costs.

The firm handed back the East Coast Main Line rail franchise - which it paid too much for at the height of the boom - to the Government last week.

Its other UK rail franchises are the East Anglia service and London commuter operation c2c, while it also has a bus division. The Government is still considering whether to press ahead with a threat to strip the group of its remaining rail deals as a result of the default of National Express East Coast.