THE NEW owners of Hythe ferry have marked their first few days in charge by vowing to make a raft of improvements to the vital transport link.

White Horse Ferries has sold the service to Southampton-based Blue Funnel in a deal that has saved the route and the jobs of about 25 ferry employees.

Blue Funnel bosses officially took over at the end of last week - and immediately pledged to revitalise the service.

Top of their agenda is a plan to refurbish and rename the only vessel currently operating on the route - Great Expectations - and introduce a second craft.

Great Expectations is set to be upgraded with winter heating and new seats replacing wooden benches.

Blue Funnel director Lee Rayment said: "Our first task is to restore a reliable service, which will involve taking the existing vessel out of service for a refit.

"Due to the urgency of the works required we'll be organising this as soon as possible and providing a temporary boat."

Great Expectations has been the only vessel operating on the route since the Uriah Heep crashed into Hythe pier after developing a mechanical fault.

As reported in the Daily Echo, the crash happened in May last year as the ferry was about to complete its journey from Southampton to Hythe.

Mr Rayment said: "We recognise the necessity to have a second vessel available in order to provide a reliable, continuous operation and have therefore secured a boat we intend to use.

"Our objective is to make this historic ferry service a modern, reliable and cost effective operation which offers a real alternative to using your car as well as providing a unique and enjoyable means of travelling to and from Southampton."

The 700-yard pier could eventually be sold or leased to a community group and restored to its former glory.

Mr Rayment said: "Throughout the negotiations I have maintained contact with the Hythe Pier Heritage Association (HPHA). I look forward to holding detailed discussions with them to explore opportunities to work together and secure the long-term future of the pier."

HPHA chairman Peter King said the group supported the handover, which "drew a line" under the White Horse period.

But fellow association member John Greenwood warned: "It's important the community understands that this takeover does not guarantee the service is saved.

"The pier and the train still need long-term investment - and that can only come with charity status and community/lottery support."

The ferry service has received an annual subsidy from Hampshire County Council.

A council spokesman said the authority had no direct role in the commercial operation of the ferry but was negotiating with the new operator about future subsidy arrangements.