A VITAL transport service is due to resume today - more than three months after it was suspended following the start of the national lockdown.

Hythe Ferry is operated by Blue Funnel, which has decided to begin operations again following the recent easing of restrictions and the prospect of more businesses reopening next Saturday.

People will once again be able to travel between Hythe and Southampton by boat instead of having to make the trip by road.

Lee Rayment, director of Blue Funnel, said: "This has been a lot to do with public support, especially in Hythe. Many have asked for the ferry to run so they can return to work.

"We have created a safe environment, with social distancing measures throughout."

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As reported in the Daily Echo, sailings were halted in the middle of April after the lockdown resulted in business plummeting by 90%.

The number of people boarding the ferry fell to just 15 a day, resulting in a "drastic" drop in income.

The service is normally used by commuters, people going shopping in Southampton city centre, and Saints fans attending matches at St Mary's Stadium.

Other regular passengers include Southampton residents who fancy a day out in the New Forest.

But people were left with little or no reason to use the ferry after strict social distancing measures were introduced to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The service normally sees between 150 and 700 passengers a day, depending on whether Saints are playing at home, but numbers slumped to only a fraction of their usual level.

Sailings were suspended and around 20 employees furloughed under the government's job retention scheme.

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A Crowdfunding campaign launched to ensure the service survived the Covid-19 crisis proved so successful that Blue Funnel doubled its initial target of £5,000.

Cash continued to pour in and the fundraising goal was raised again - from £10,000 to £12,000. The third target was also beaten, with supporters donating almost £13,000.

The service is due to start operating again today, along with the electric train which runs the length of the pier.

The ferry will leave the pier at regular intervals between 6.30am and 6pm, Monday to Friday, and between 10am and 4pm at weekends.

Mr Rayment said: "We have created a safe environment, with social distancing measures throughout. You'll need to wear a mask on the train and inside the cabins on te ferry.

"The company is still not in a great position and we are very hopeful of getting support from the local councils."

Alan Titheridge, who has written a book about the history of the ferry service, added: "Seeing the pier gates locked and the ferry boats and train standing idle has been perhaps the most unsettling aspect of life in Hythe over the past ten weeks.

"The ferry is at the very heart of the village.

"It is its hub, providing access to the commercial and social opportunities of Southampton as well as bringing in a tourist trade that is beneficial to the local economy.

"Hythe has had a ferry longer than the lifetime of everyone living here. Nobody knows of a time it hasn't been here.

"The past 70 days have shown us what life could be like without it. It's so good to see the boats in operation again and to hear the familiar and comforting 'clickety-clack' of the train."

Several people have taken to social media to voice their delight at the resumption of the service.

One person posted: "Fantastic news - thought for one minute it was gone forever."

Another social media user added: "They keep saying we need to get cars off the roads so the ferry is a vital transport link."