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Hop on to public transport

Margaret Thatcher famously said that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”.

How things have changed. Anyone using buses or trains need no longer hang his or her head in shame. The popularity of public transport has taken a huge jump as more of us are leaving our cars at home, and some companies are profiting handsomely.

On Thursday, National Express reported a near 14 per cent increase in first-half profits to £90million, from £79million a year ago. The bus and rail group - whose operations include the East Coast rail service and a nationwide coach network - said that its UK train business was doing particularly well.

It is not alone. While the credit crunch has proved crippling for many companies, the UK's four other listed bus, rail and coach operators - Arriva, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead and Stagecoach - have also been reporting double-digit growth.

High fuel prices have been a key factor in public transport's popularity over the past six months. The AA, the motoring organisation, says that rising petrol and diesel prices ave prompted more than 50 per cent of motorists to cut back on using their cars.

Growing rail and bus use is, however, not a recent phenomenon. Frustration about road congestion and a growing eco-awareness have also encouraged more of us to get out of our cars. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the use of public transport has risen every year since 2000.

The shift away from cars has also resulted in more commuters getting on their bikes. In Mrs Thatcher's day the humble bicycle, like the bus, was largely a poor man's mode of transport. Now it has become essential kit for an urban middle class concerned about a healthy lifestyle, rather than saving the pennies. What better illustration of how views have changed than David Cameron. Keen to demonstrate his green credentials, today's Tory leader grabs every opportunity to be snapped with his bike (or without it, after it was recently stolen). The biggest beneficiary of the shift to two wheels has been Halfords, the company that sells one in every three bikes sold in the UK.

Other high street retailers have taken a battering as consumer spending slows, but Halfords recently revealed that sales had grown 1.7 per cent in the 13 weeks to June 27.

This was not just down to bike sales but also strong demand for car parts, as cash-strapped motorists work- ed on cars themselves rather than buying a new model. Camping equipment has also proved popular as families cut back on expensive holidays.

Despite this strong performance, Halfords's share price remains in the doldrums. It stands on a prospective multiple of about nine times 2009 earnings, in line with other retailers. Buying it is still a high-risk proposition - the management admits that it is “not immune to the ongoing challenging retail environment”.

But some analysts are convinced that its defensive qualities will be rewarded. Buy, if you have the nerve.

In the event of a prolonged economic downturn, though, the public transport companies are likely to fare better. So what to buy?

After its buoyant trading update National Express looks most attractive. David Ross, its chairman, acknowledges that the economic climate will be tough in the next six months but remains sure “that we will deliver full-year results in line with expectations”- rare confidence in these troubled times.

High petrol and diesel prices could be a problem longer-term, but it has hedged itself against rising oil prices for 100 per cent of its fuel needs this year and 47 per cent for 2009.

But can it maintain momentum after the downturn ends? Given the trend to use public transport it looks as though it can - provided it runs its trains on time, of course.

From July 31, 2008