The Cairn Gorm funicular. Photo: David Briody CC-BY-ND-2.0

The Cairn Gorm funicular. Photo: David Briody CC-BY-ND-2.0

Walkers will be allowed to get the train to the top of one of Scotland’s highest mountains for the first time.

A ban on visitors using the Cairn Gorm funicular to access the mountain’s summit is being relaxed in a trial agreed by Highland Council and Scottish Natural Heritage.

The funicular has a troubled financial history and in March this year the Scottish Parliament’s public audit committee severely criticised Highlands and Islands Enterprise for lax practices which saw the cost of the project spiral to £26.75m. The committee’s report said the scheme had been pushed ahead without accounting for the drop in the number of skiers, although the large amount of snow that fell in the Highlands this winter meant CairnGorm Mountain Limited, which runs the funicular and ski resort, had its best season in years.

The funicular opened on Christmas Eve in 2001 and replaced an old chairlift system that had operated since the 1960s.

Included in the funding of the funicular was a European Union grant of £2.7m, a condition of which is the ‘closed system’ whereby walkers are not allowed outside the Ptarmigan top station and restaurant if they use the funicular. The stipulation was an attempt to keep down numbers to a manageable level to the internationally important arctic plateau, which is protected by EU laws. The UK Government must repay the grant if the 25-year-long closed system is abandoned.

Keith Duncan, area officer for Scottish Natural Heritage does not believe the walkers’ trial, which will see visitors accompanied by guides, puts the cash at risk. “I don’t think so because this is strictly managed, he said. “They won’t be entering the European site, which is beyond the Cairn Gorm summit.

“The main issue is about the number of people going up compared to the old chairlift. About 160,000 to 180,000 non-skiing visitors use the funicular, compared with between 10,000 and 50,000 on the chairlift. Of course, because the funicular is enclosed, people can go up on that in worse weather.”

The trial, dubbed Walk @ the Top by CML, which was taken into public ownership in 2008 when it faced going into administration, will involve a 90-minute walk around the ski areas and on to the 1,244m (4,081ft) summit, the sixth highest in Britain. Its walks will start on 17 July and continue until 31 October.

Ian Whitaker, the company’s chief executive said: “CairnGorm Mountain welcomes the opportunity to manage trial visitor walks from the Ptarmigan top station this summer.

“The trial walks will be carefully managed and monitored in accordance with the agreed operating procedure and all data will be subject to review by SNH and Highland Council at the end of the trial period.

“This will considerably enhance the visitor experience at CairnGorm Mountain. Through this type of activity, visitors become fully engaged with the mountain landscape and this will lead to greater understanding of the significance of the Cairngorms national park mountain heartland and  why it is one of Europe’s most significant mountain wildernesses and worthy of the environmental protection it enjoys.

The Cairngorm plateau. Photo: Roger Wild

The Cairngorm plateau. Photo: Roger Wild

“Visitors to the summit will be able to view the Cairngorm plateau, the most extensive area over 3,000 ft in the British Isles and experience the impact of weather and climate at this altitude. This trial allows us to address a key visitor frustration with the existing arrangements which do not permit access out at the top station. The trial allows us to test the visitor appeal of short guided walks within the ski area in a measured and responsible way.”

He said that, on a busy summer day, the mountain railway carries 1,000 people. The trial allows for a maximum peak capacity of 140 people per day taking part in a walk at the top. As well as keeping a record of the numbers who book onto a walk, CML will also record the numbers we have not been able to accommodate but who wish to undertake the activity.

“The trial will provide useful data on the demand for this activity which will guide decisions on any long-term changes to the visitor management plan in future,” he added. “Trials have operated successfully for the change that resulted in walkers being able to enter the top station building and use the down trains. The guided trial walks from the top are no different. A monitored trial followed by review. SNH and Highland Council would consult publicly before agreeing to any long-term change to the visitor management plan.”

Keith Duncan confirmed the scheme could be extended. He said: “We are open to any proposal that CairnGorm Mountain may want to put forward. We are open to any amendment providing it won’t impact on the European site.

“If CairnGorm Mountain wants to do this, on a trial base, we would carry out a public consultation. If they decide to roll this out, we would use information from this trial.”

A Highland Council spokesperson confirmed that the council is allowing the trial. The spokesperson said: “[The council] awaits the outcomes of the monitoring arrangement with interest which is a requirement of the legal agreement and visitor management plan with CairnGorm Mountain Limited.”

Mountaineering Council of Scotland chief officer David Gibson said that MCofS welcomed the opportunity the initiative will bring to people with limited hill walking experience or mobility to enjoy the mountains.

He added: “We understand that the public will pay for ‘guided walks’ and that these will be organised in groups of 10. It appears that these guided walks will be closely managed to specific areas of the mountain and will not affect the mountain’s Natura 2000 habitat.

“While we haven’t been consulted on safety matters by Cairngorm Mountain Limited, we would assume that they have undertaken appropriate risk assessments and that walks will be led by qualified or experienced people.

“The Cairngorm plateau is a Natura 2000 site and protected by law under European legislation. Cairngorm Mountain Limited is aware of its obligations under this legislation. Clearly we would be concerned if there was any detrimental effect on the mountain as a result of this initiative but there is a well-constructed network of pathways and we assume that the walks will use this network.”

The walks will cost £13, with reduced charges for senior citizens and children. The charge includes a return funicular ticket. An invitation-only event will take place on 14 July, with the public service, for which booking is advised, starting the following Saturday.

The funicular project sparked opposition from its outset and has been dogged by controversy during its nine-year existence, much of it centred on the financing of the railway and associated resort. There has been increasing pressure to allow summer visitors out on to the mountain to boost visitor numbers.

In May last year, Ramblers Scotland called for a halt on any further public money for the project. Director Dave Morris said: “An absolutely huge sum of public money has been spent on this, but when it started its life it was supposed to have been private-sector led. We always held it was built in the wrong place.

“The top station should have been at the lower end of the Ptarmigan Bowl, away from the European designated sites, then they might not have had to have a closed system which prevents people getting out at the top. It might have succeeded then.”

The Cairngorm mountains are one of Europe’s largest wilderness areas and their northerly latitude, harsh climate and thin soils provide a unique habitat for many arctic and alpine plants and wildlife not normally associated with the UK.

Most of the land surrounding the ski area is protected under European and UK environmental laws. Since the opening of the mountain railway in 2001, its visitor management plan has been operating to protect the high mountain core of the Cairngorms national park, with visitors wanting to walk in the high tops of the Cairngorms not allowed to use the mountain railway as a quick means of access onto the high plateau, but encouraged to walk from lower down the mountain.

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