A HAMPSHIRE ferry operator has been hit by a 30 per cent drop in passengers since a dredger smashed through Hythe Pier.

White Horse ferries says the number of people using the Hythe to Southampton service slumped after the accident on November 1.

Ferries are currently operating from Hythe Marina, which is less convenient for passengers. Company bosses are hoping repairs to the 122-year-old pier will be completed between Christmas and new year or early next month.

Director Peter Lay said: "We are putting down new decking at the moment and most of the new steelwork has already been installed. We should start operating from the pier between Christmas and new year, but the train won't start running again until January because we have got to relay the track and it all takes time."

The ferries normally carry more than 650,000 people a year, reducing congestion on the A326 and other traffic-choked roads between Hythe and Southampton. Mr Lay added: "Passenger numbers are down 30 per cent following the incident with the dredger on November 1.

"We have got to bounce back and hope to see an increase in passengers as soon as we start operating from the pier.

"Our priority is to maintain a reliable, punctual service, which is the best way to improve passenger numbers."

Hythe Pier - one of the longest in the country - was built in 1881 at a cost of £7,000. It has been out of action since the Fareham-based Donald Redford smashed into the Victorian structure, destroying a 50ft section of jetty. Northwood (Fareham) Ltd, which owns the dredger, initially refused to meet the full cost of repairs but subsequently agreed to foot the entire bill - estimated to be about £300,000. Dredger captain Andrew Bartlett, 37, of Milton, Portsmouth, has been accused of endangering life and damaging the pier while under the influence of alcohol.

He appeared before New Forest magistrates last month and was remanded on bail until January 9.