The Transport Department has proposed merging two ferry routes from Central to Peng Chau and Mui Wo in a move it says will avert fare increases by the operator, which has been hit by dwindling passenger numbers. If the move goes ahead, residents of the two island communities will lose their exclusive services in off-peak hours, when the ferries to Mui Wo would run via Peng Chau. New World First Ferry would also be allowed to increase journey times to Mui Wo. 'Passenger levels are too low. We hope to ease the operating costs for ferry operators through this arrangement,' said Carol Cheung Lin-yung, chief transport officer for ferries. In a special meeting with islands district councillors yesterday, transport officials proposed the merger of services between Central and both Mui Wo and Peng Chau during off-peak hours. Under the department's proposal, frequency of service would decrease from every 40 or 45 minutes to one service an hour. The travel time from Mui Wo to Central would also increase from the present 31 minutes for fast ferries to 46 minutes, and from 48 to 63 minutes for slow ferries. In recent years, fewer people have been using the ferry services while operating costs have increased, the department says. Passenger numbers between Peng Chau and Central have dropped from 5,300 a day in 2001 to 4,900 last year, and from 6,900 a day in 2001 to 6,400 last year for Mui Wo. A department source said if the routes were run separately, ferry operators would have to raise fares by 20 to 30 per cent just to break even. The department expects more than 10,000 passengers a day under the new arrangement. 'Having more passengers to spread the operating costs of the two routes, saving fuel costs and lowering the overall operating costs will help to stabilise the future. Passengers will benefit ultimately,' a department paper stated. Islands District Councillor Daniel Lam Wai-keung called on the government to provide subsidies to operators in the form of more land for commercial use. He also said he hoped the government would provide support to the tourism industries on those islands. New World First Ferry, which runs both routes, is said to have lost up to HK$10 million and is unsure if it will bid for new licences when the present ones expire next year.