BUS and rail group National Express today strengthened its presence in Spain with a major takeover.
National Express has bought Spanish coach and bus firm Continental Auto for £449.7m.
Combined with the existing Alsa business, it means National Express will operate more than 2,100 vehicles in the country, carrying more than 142m passengers a year.
The news came as National Express reported a strong start to 2007 - with a 6.8% rise in the number of passengers on its trains.
The group also hailed a strong performance by its coach operations - which should benefit further after National Express was awarded the role as official transport supplier for the newly-opened Wembley Stadium earlier in the month.
The acquisition of Continental Auto follows a review by National Express chief executive Richard Bowker, who said in March that the company was actively looking to expand through acquisitions in the UK and overseas.
The group said Continental Auto would significantly enhance Alsa's existing presence in the country.
Continental, which reported profits of £18.6m last year, has a fleet of 860 buses and coaches and operates in 11 regions, including 29 provincial capitals. It also has freight and rail operations.
Alsa, which National Express bought in December, 2005, increased profits from £2.6m in 2005 to £44.3m last year.
The Spanish public transport market is one of the fastest growing in Europe and is benefiting from increased investment and expansion of bus lanes as part of a major campaign to improve services.
Mr Bowker said: "This transaction will reinforce our position as a leading provider in the Spanish transport market."
In the UK, National Express is preparing bids for the Inter-City East Coast mainline rail franchise, due to be submitted in June.
It is also in the process of discussing bids for the East Midlands and Cross Country franchises.