Cairngorm funicular railway opens at last

THE new £15 million Cairngorm funicular railway will be unveiled to the public today - and its inaugural passenger will be the Inverness woman who first used the now redundant chairlift when it opened 40 years ago.

Georgie Crook, who, as a four-year-old, was the first person to make the trip in the old White Lady chairlift at Scotland’s famous Aviemore ski resort, will be back to officially cut a ribbon and flag off the UK’s first high-speed funicular railway.

The multi-million pound railway is set to roll on schedule, despite set backs to the project, and will replace the original chairlift which was itself inaugurated on 23rd December 1961 - nearly 40 years ago to the day.

Officials from HM Railways Inspectorate have given the service the green-light after carrying out a series of tests earlier this month in which the two carriages passed all the necessary safety checks.

Prior to the inspectors’ visits on 13 and 14 December, CairnGorm Mountain Ltd and representatives of Swiss-based contractor Doppelmayr Seilbahnen, spent weeks testing the traction, braking, safety and passenger systems.

The new service, which will start carrying its first passengers straight after the opening ceremony, has been heralded as a massive boost for tourism across the Highlands with rail operators saying it could be dubbed the biggest Christmas present ever for Scottish tourism.

Journalists and special guests were party to a test-run of the railway and its purple coach yesterday following a brief ceremony, which also commemorated 40 years of skiing in the area.

The new railway, with 12-tonne carriages which are pulled up and down by cables attached to fixed motors, will transform the Cairngorms from being a predominantly winter sports area, to a year-round visitor attraction.

The project has been dogged by controversy, at one point reaching the Court of Session where environment agencies sought a judicial review over whether visitor management arrangements were adequate to protect the environment.

New jobs will be created locally as a result of the new development, as well as protecting the almost 3,000 existing jobs in surrounding Badenoch and Strathspey which are tourism-related.

With visitor numbers expected to increase from the present 50,000 per year to 165,000, the new railway can carry up to 1,200 passengers per hour in winter, almost double the present rate, and up to 500 per hour in summer.

The journey for the 2km between the car park and the Ptarmigan top station is now taken fully enclosed from the elements and is expected to take five minutes at its fastest - a fraction of the previous 25- minute chairlift trip.

It will also be able to cope with winds of up to 75-80mph, while the chairlift was forced to close in winds above 25mph.

New facilities at the Ptarmigan station - some 122 metres below the Cairngorm summit - will include an interactive Mountain Experience exhibition, a retail area and a restaurant which will not only be the highest in the country but also will enjoy some of the most spectacular panoramic views.

CairnGorm Mountain Ltd, which operates the CairnGorm Funicular, is wholly owned by Cairngorm Mountain Trust, of which there are no shareholders and all revenue generated from the company’s activities will continue to be invested in the site for the benefit of both the visitors and the environment. Highlands and Islands Enterprise assumed ownership of the entire project earlier this year making it a public owned asset which is leased to CairnGorm Mountain Ltd.

The 2km rail line up Cairngorm has been planned for seven years and been dogged by controversy for much of the way. The project won backing by the then Highland Regional Council but it was held up when the WWF and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds sought a judicial review over whether visitor management arrangements were adequate to protect the environment.

Recently there have been rumours circulating that the project was behind schedule and of rows between Morrison Construction, the contractors, and Doppelmayr, the funicular train builders.

Bob Kinnaird, the operating company’s chief executive, did admit there had been a dispute between the companies but stressed in October this year that the project remained on schedule.

The Swiss-built carriages - the last pieces in the jigsaw- were given a celebrity welcome as visitors, locals and journalists lined the streets in Aviemore to catch sight of them.

The purple carriages took two days to make the 1,100-mile journey via Holland to Newcastle and by road to Aviemore and then the final few miles to the Cairngorms.

On their arrival, a giant crane lowered the two 12 tonne, 12 metre-long carriages on to the two-kilometre track.

Hamish Swan, chairman of CairnGorm Mountain Ltd, said: "It is great to be at this stage in the creation of a high quality visitor attraction. It is a great time for Highland tourism."