FIERCE opposition is mounting to the Hongkong Ferry Company's (HFC) proposed 24 per cent fare rise, with demands yesterday that shareholders instead of passengers be forced to pay for drastically-needed improvements. Legislative Councillor Mr Albert Chan Wai-yip questioned the proposed rise, saying the company had failed to live up to promises of improvements made before last year's rises were granted. Ferry passengers interviewed by the South China Morning Post said service was declining, with ageing crew, shabby boats and piers where people were herded like cattle. ''It's Third World and they've got a monopoly and are trying to make us pay for improvements that should be standard,'' one long-time Peng Chau resident said. Meanwhile, outlying island residents' representatives are preparing questionnaires for passengers on Friday to pressure Transport Department officials now examining initial submissions from HKF for a July increase. Hongkong Ferry (Holdings) Company president Mr Peter Wong Man-kong announced on Monday that fares would have to rise by 24 per cent if improvements were to be made. He said the company would embark on public consultation for the first time next week, giving passengers the option of accepting a 12 per cent rise to cover inflation but no improvements. However, Mr Chan said he would look closely at the inflation estimate while any claim for more was mere trickery on the part of HKF. ''I believe the 24 per cent claim is totally out of the question. ''It's just a tactic to reduce public pressure, camouflage so they can push through the 12 per cent,'' he said. ''And I have reservations about that figure as it is.'' Mr Chan, who represents outlying islanders as a directly-elected councillor for New Territories, was convenor of the Legislative Council ad hoc group set up to examine the company's 14.3 per cent rise last year. ''There have been no improvements for the public since then and now they expect the passengers to pay for what should come from the shareholders, who are still making a profit.'' HKF profits announced this week a drop of 34 per cent in profit to $88.2 million, with profits from local ferry operations dropping $25 million to $11 million as passenger numbers continued to decline. The company has handed papers backing its claims to the Finance Branch. A Transport Branch spokesman said the HKF submission was only in the early stages of being examined, but the needs and mood of the public would be considered. Mr Chow Yuk-tong, Islands' District Board member and chairman of the Lamma South rural committee, said the board had overwhelmingly rejected the proposed increase as it was well above inflation. They were also angry that the HKF or the Transport Department had not consulted them. ''District boards are the only consultative body we have but they never bother to discuss the matter with us,'' he said. Mr Chow said they were considering setting up an alliance comprising residents from all outlying islands in a bid to press the company to freeze the fares for at least another year.