THE largest shareholder in ailing National Express has increased his stake in the bus and rail company for the second time in less than a week.
Deputy chairman Jorge Cosmen bought 750,000 shares for £2.7m in the latest swoop – taking the Spanish family’s share in the business to just under 19.5%.
The stake-building move fuels speculation that the Cosmens are manoeuvring to block a £360m investor cash-call launched by the firm two weeks ago in a bid to repair its battered balance sheet.
The Cosmens, who abandoned attempts to buy National Express this year, had previously raised concerns that the firm had been too hasty in dismissing a merger approach from rival Stagecoach.
The Cosmens' latest stake-building comes soon after a £1.7m swoop for more than 500,000 shares.
One analyst ,who did not wish to be named said: “It looks like they are trying to amass as much of a blocking stake as possible.”
But 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.
Mr Cosmen wants the group to look at other potential deals before the launch of a rights issue, which would cost the family about £70m 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.
The company is understood to face the threat of losing its other franchises – the East Anglia service and London commuter operation c2c – by default, although it believes it would have legal ground to challenge any attempt to reclaim them.
The latest developments led shares in National Express to slide by 4.8p to finish yesterday at 362.1p.