Funicular railway at Cairngorm

At 9.30 last Thursday morning (26 January), I was privileged to be among the first group of passengers in four years to ride the 2km Cairngorm Mountain Railway from the base station to the famous Ptarmigan building near the top of Cairn Gorm.

As you might expect, there was a tangible air of excitement among the skiers, snowboarders and sightseers in the newly-refurbished carriage. This was the first time in four years that Scotland’s only funicular railway had been able to open to the public, having been taken out of service in October 2018 following safety concerns.

During that time, owner Highlands and Islands Enterprise has been engaged in an arduous programme of inspection, options appraisal, design and strengthening works along the 1.75km viaduct and the 94 individual piers that support it. (The highest 250m stretch of the railway runs through a tunnel to the top station.)

Lead contractor Balfour Beatty started work on site in November 2020. Through spring, summer and autumn of the past two years, their crew took on not only one of Scotland’s most recent complex civil engineering projects, but also extreme weather, high altitude and numerous technical challenges. And let’s not forget the impacts of Covid, Brexit and, by no means least… midges.

Other significant hurdles to be overcome before Thursday’s low-key but historic relaunch included replacing the funicular control system and achieving safety certification from the Department for Transport.

But overcome they were and, when the cable tightened, the wheels turned and the carriage pulled smoothly out from the base station, you could clearly see the delight on everyone’s faces as a cheer went up, along with a round of applause. Now, with a bit of luck, we’re all hoping for some good snowfall, low temperatures and light winds to get the winter season into full swing.

However, that doesn’t mean the funicular reinstatement project is finished.

One of the most important aspects of this programme has been the care taken to protect the precious natural environment of a genuinely iconic mountain at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. And that work will resume once winter passes.

Our prime goal for the past year has been to reinstate the funicular service during the winter 2022/23 snowsports season. And it’s fair to say that all involved were both delighted and somewhat relieved when we met that objective.

However, the deadline to complete the major strengthening works coincided with the advent of winter, meaning there was precious little time to tidy up what was literally a building site before the snow arrived and trains began rolling again.

When the mountain is covered in snow, as we hope it will be for the full winter season, Cairn Gorm will appear as spectacular as ever. But when the snow clears – during the next few months at least – some areas won’t look their best.

We hope people will understand, firstly, that this situation is temporary, and secondly, that HIE, our contractors and the team at Cairngorm Mountain are determined to resume clearing, attend to snagging, and restoring the affected areas once the seasons change again.

Some tasks – such as removing building materials and equipment – can be accomplished relatively quickly and will make a visible difference. Others, including reseeding and replanting, are expected take months to complete, and years to mature.

If you’re planning a trip to Cairngorm Mountain soon, I hope you have as much enjoyment as I did on that first train ride. And if you see some areas in need of a little attention, please be assured: we’ll deal with all these outstanding matters just as soon as the weather permits.

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