IT’S a vital transport link that has seen more ups and downs than the waters on which it operates.

The future of the Hythe to Southampton ferry has been hanging in the balance for years, largely as a result of ticket sales failing to keep pace with rising costs.

Six months ago White Horse Ferries, which has operated the route since the early 1990s, warned that the vessel was “unlikely” to continue operating.

But today the Daily Echo can reveal that the centuries-old service has been saved.

The route is set to be taken over by Southampton-based Blue Funnel, which is in the process of buying the boat and the pier from White Horse Ferries.

Blue Funnel director Lee Rayment stressed that the deal was still being finalised but said he was “90 per cent certain” it would go through.

The handover is due to take place next Friday, when up to 30 staff and the vessel Great Expectations will transfer to the new owner.

Mr Rayment said he planned to transform the link by providing a back-up boat and ultimately a new ferry.

He added: “My main aim is to revitalise the service by improving reliability and passenger comfort.

“I have the experience and the know-how, and hope the planned changes will convince more people to use it.”

Mr Rayment pledged to keep ticket prices at their current level for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve got to get the custom back first – and you don’t get that by putting the fares up,” he said.

Julian Lewis, Conservative MP for New Forest East, added: “It’s great news which, if confirmed, will be a cause for celebration.

“Both the ferry and the pier are symbolic of Hythe.

“I’m sure all members of the community will be pleased and delighted at this outcome.”

A White Horse spokesman added that a meeting would take place next Wednesday to discuss the handover.

Asked about the company’s reaction to the service being sold to another operator he added: “It’s a busy bank holiday weekend – we haven’t had time to think about it.”

Ferry supporters said they hoped the sale would lead to major investment including the provision of a second boat.

The Hythe ferry has been operating with only one vessel since last May, when the Uriah Heep crashed into the pier

after problems with its propulsion system and had to be scrapped.

White Horse is selling the ferry to Blue Funnel for an undisclosed sum following months of talks.

Hythe and Dibden county councillor Malcolm Wade, pictured inset above, described the deal as a “new and positive page in the history of the service”.

He added: “Blue Funnel is an excellent company to take over the running of the ferry.

“They’re enthusiastic about providing a good service and I know the county council will support them because the authority is committed to the service.

“It’s not only an important transport link, it’s a vital part of Hythe’s culture.”

Totton and Marchwood county councillor David Harrison added: “Hythe ferry is such an important element of the public transport system that it would have been a calamity to lose it.”

Blue Funnel made a previous attempt to acquire the service in 1994 but the county council accepted a rival offer from White Horse.

Last October the company revealed it was trying to find a buyer for the service and had sent redundancy letters to all the staff, believed to number between 20 and 30.

Speaking at the time, director Peter Lay cited the decline in passenger numbers and the cost of maintaining the pier.

But the threat to the survival of the service was greeted with shock and dismay by people living in Hythe and neighbouring communities.

They cited ever-increasing congestion on the A326 and warned that proposals to build a huge number of new homes on the Waterside, including 1,500 on the old Fawley power station site, meant the problem would continue to get worse.

Cllr Harrison also called for passenger services on the old Totton to Fawley railway line to be reintroduced after 50 years to combat congestion.

About 9,000 people signed a petition, backed by the Daily Echo, calling for the service to be saved.

Campaigners also formed the Hythe Pier Heritage Association, launched with the aim of creating a charitable trust that would administer and preserve the structure.