THE return to service of the Sandbanks Ferry has been pushed back by another week – but its operators continue to say that repair work is “progressing well”.

It means the vessel will now be out of action for the eleventh week running. Its return to service on December 20, following seven weeks of scheduled maintenance, was shortlived after a hydraulic leak the next day put the ferry out of operation again.

However, it was spotted operating on Saturday, December 29, “dropping off staff cars”, according to a resident.

The Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry company, which operates the service, issued a brief update yesterday, stating: “The works on the ferry are progressing well but we had hoped to have them finished this week. This is now delayed to hopefully return to service by the end of next week but we will update as soon as we have any further information.”

The Daily Echo contacted the company’s office for a fuller explanation of the ongoing issue and the reason for the delay, however we did not get a call back at the time of going to press.

The ferry’s closure continues to put strain on businesses and residents on both sides of the ferry crossing.

Zoe Lamble, who runs the Haven Ferry Café, told the Echo yesterday that it had been a “very long 74 days”. The café relies on the footfall from ferry passengers. “They’ve obviously got a massive problem, and I’m not entirely sure they’re being straight about the extent of it,” she said.

Purbeck district councillor Caroline Finch, who represents Swanage South, said the area’s hospitality sector had been “hit hard” by the ferry’s closure.

“Vital Christmas trade was lost at a time of year when it is most needed as many people will simply not drive round unless they have to.”

Cllr Finch, who is also the chairman of Swanage Chamber of Trade, was among the many objectors to the ferry company’s proposed toll increases, which were refused by the Secretary of State following a public inquiry in September.

A Government-appointed inspector had raised concerns that a reserve for a future replacement ferry was not being ringfenced.

“It was clear that after the public inquiry there was a significant area of concern that the ferry replacement fund is not ringfenced. In my view the company must now seriously stop taking huge dividends before they have adequately put money by for repairs, maintenance and replacement funds for a ferry in the future. If you are going to keep asking for more money every few years, as they have been doing so, for a new ferry then surely you then must put the money aside for that purpose? The tolls have been increased in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2014 for a replacement ferry and to give the directors a reasonable return on their investment. Sadly, money goes in and out of that reserve like the tide at Sandbanks,” Cllr Finch said. “There are rumours why the ferry is taking so long to come back into action – that it’s in response to the Secretary of State’s decision. I am sure this is not the case as the ferry revenue must certainly be down as well. Let’s hope that it is up-and-running soon and proper sustainable investment is put into the ferry which we all depend on. We all love the ferry.”

Debby Monkhouse, of Swanage Labour, and among the objectors, said: “It does seem rather a coincidence that they didn’t get the price increases they wanted following the inspector’s report and now the ferry is out of service for this length of time.

“People are really suffering as it makes the journey a lot longer going round the other way.

“I trust the company is not punishing residents and implore them to get the ferry back up-and-running as soon as possible.”