The Cairn Gorm funicular. Photo: Fraser Anderson

The Cairn Gorm funicular. Photo: Fraser Anderson

A group of voluntary organisations said the controversial funicular railway on Cairn Gorm should be dismantled.

An engineers’ report released after a freedom of information request said the railway, completed in 2001, is in a poor condition for its age.

The funicular, built to transport skiers to the upper slopes of the mountain, has been closed for more than a year after structural problems came to light. Repairs are likely to cost up to £10m.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the public body that owns the railway and ski-resort facilities on the north side of the 1,245m (4,085ft) mountain, is believed to plan to go ahead with repairs, subject to Scottish Government approval.

But a coalition of voluntary groups said no further development should go ahead until a masterplan for the resort is produced.

The Cairngorms Campaign, Campaign for a Better Cairngorm, North East Mountain Trust, Ramblers Scotland and the Scottish Wild Land Group have produced their own ‘vision’ for the future of the mountain, supporting the future of skiing in the context of the uncertainties of climate change.

Its main points are:

  • The promised masterplan is long overdue; the time for piecemeal decision making is over
  • The ski uplift should be streamlined and upgraded
  • The case for repairing the funicular is very weak; no more public money should be wasted
  • Only developments that are in keeping with a sensitive high-mountain environment should be considered. The zipwires and mountain coasters proposed by HIE have no place high in Scotland’s finest mountain range when they could be sited elsewhere
  • A Centre for the Mountain Environment could provide a sustainable visitor attraction.

A spokesperson for the North East Mountain Trust said: “Over the last few years, the ski area on Cairn Gorm has seen poor management, a lack of investment, the collapse of the company responsible for running it and very serious structural problems with the funicular.

“The situation has been compounded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s failure to produce its long promised masterplan and its lack of openness about the costs surrounding either removal or repair of the funicular.

“The situation must be resolved in a way which is both financially and environmentally sustainable and which provides an experience which skiers actually want. At a time of severe financial pressures, the drain on public funding must stop.

“Despite the lack of a masterplan, HIE continues to submit planning applications for developments which cannot be judged by the planning authorities in the context of a future vision for the mountain.

“Equally worryingly, it is understood that HIE will submit a proposal shortly to the Scottish Government to repair the funicular, and the latter may well take a decision on this, before the publication of a masterplan. Given the major implications for the public purse and the interest the Auditor General has taken in the financial aspects of the recent management of the ski company, along with the lack of opportunity for public scrutiny, this is wholly unacceptable.

The trust’s chair David Windle added: “Cairn Gorm is a national asset. It is too important for skiers, the economy of Speyside and the thousands of members of the public who visit annually for decisions to be taken incrementally.

The Cairn Gorm ski centre. Photo: Stephen Sweeney CC-BY-SA-2.0

The Cairn Gorm ski centre. Photo: Stephen Sweeney CC-BY-SA-2.0

“The time for secrecy is over. We call on HIE and Fergus Ewing, the cabinet secretary responsible, to postpone any decisions on the future of funicular and potential infrastructure developments until after a public consultation on the proposed masterplan.

“Unless this happens, large sums of money may well be spent on developments which do not meet skiers’ needs and which are totally out of keeping with a high mountain environment.”

The groups’ masterplan said downhill skiing should be developed on ‘a light and lean’ basis and may well be confined to Coire Cas, with modern ski lifts. These should end below the top of the plateau where frequent high winds make skiing unpleasant. A more compact ski area would allow snow making to be used to best advantage. Native trees should be planted widely to enhance the environment, reduce the visual impact and improve the skier experience, particularly in low cloud.

As climate change is likely to make skiing conditions increasingly unpredictable, more bad weather alternatives should be developed in Speyside, it said.

A Centre for the Mountain Environment could be built, learning from the success of the Eden Project in Cornwall. The report said Cairn Gorm and the surrounding area offer outstanding views of high plateau, steep rocky cliffs and deeply incised corries, which impress everybody.

Consultants Adac Structures produced reports in 2018 on both the general state of repair of the funicular and the sliding bearings that sit between the concrete support piers and the superstructure of the railway.

The inspections, released following a Freedom of Information Act application, show widespread problems.

The general report said: “The general condition was thought to be poor for a structure of this age with widespread minor deficiencies giving a general impression of poor quality control during the construction phase.

“Crack patterns seen within the span of the beams, opening joints over the supports and rust staining at a number of these locations all indicate that the recommended deflection criteria are not being met and that corrosion of the reinforcement has started.

“There is no evidence of extensive corrosion at this stage, but it is of concern that corrosion has initiated at this relatively young age.”

Snow-clearing operations had also damaged parts of the structure, it said.

The case for repair of the funicular 'was weak'. Photo: Stephen Sweeney CC-BY-SA-2.0

The case for repair of the funicular 'was weak'. Photo: Stephen Sweeney CC-BY-SA-2.0

The voluntary groups said the case for repairing the funicular is weak. The consultants’ report commissioned by HIE envisages a much reduced role for the facility. Repair will be very expensive and costs for long term maintenance will continue. “It is no justification to base the case for repair on the argument that this would be a little less costly than removal,” it said. “Removal of the concrete bases below ground level may not be needed, and work could be phased over a number of years, which cannot happen with the repair option.” The future of the Ptarmigan should also be considered in the light of plans to modernise the ski uplift.

The proposed mountain biking tracks and adrenaline rides, including a downhill mountain roller coaster and zipwire, should be placed elsewhere on Speyside in a less environmentally sensitive area, and one less subject to the vagaries of bad weather.

Highlands & Islands Enterprise took over the operation of the ski resort after the company running it, CairnGorm Mountain, was put into administration by parent company Natural Retreats, which had a 25-year-contract to run the resort, south-east of Aviemore. The closure of the funicular in September 2018 had a serious effect on its revenues.

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