Balfour Beatty has been brought in to repair and reopen the Cairngorm Funicular, the UK’s highest railway.
Opened in 2001, the Cairngorm Funicular runs for 1,970 metres and rises through 462 metres, with a maximum gradient of 23° (1 in 2.5 or 40%). Each carriage can accommodate 120 people standing. As is common practice with funicular railways, there is a single track (2,000 mm – 6’ 6.3⁄4” gauge) with a passing loop halfway, just above the middle (Sheiling) station.
At the top, on the approach to Ptarmigan station, the railway runs for 250 metres through a cut-and-cover tunnel.
Maximum operating speed is 22mph (36km/h) and the railway can operate in wind speeds of up to 75mph (120km/h) depending on the wind’s direction. The funicular replaced a 40-year-old chairlift that was too susceptible to high winds.
In the past, over 200,000 people used the railway every year, tourists and sightseers in the summer and skiers in the winter.
Following safety concerns raised during a general inspection in autumn 2018, COWI carried out a detailed investigation between September and December of that year, including excavating around foundations and intrusive investigations of the structure.
The report concluded that, while the structure did not present an immediate danger to the public, the safety margin was lower than desirable and a series of measures should be put in place to address weaknesses before resumption of service. Work would be needed to strengthen the piers, beams and foundations, and install new bearings with higher load and movement capacity.
The railway closed in October 2018 and the operator, Natural Retreats UK, went out of business one month later.
Owner Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) is now planning to reopen the funicular, to be operated by wholly owned subsidiary Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland) Limited (CMSL), during winter 2021-22.
The £16 million investment decision to reinstate the funicular was taken following a detailed options appraisal that also considered replacing it with alternative uplift infrastructure or even removing it entirely.
Initial work to strengthen the structure is scheduled to start in October 2020. Once up and running, the funicular is expected to attract thousands of visitors a year, generating benefits for the wider economy in Badenoch and Strathspey, where the tourism and hospitality sectors have been hit hard by Coronavirus (COVID-19).
A further £4.35 million has been approved for potential additional capital requirements including building improvements, electrification of snow cannons, existing tow infrastructure, paths and car parking.
Charlotte Wright, chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said: “Cairngorm is more than a mountain. It’s at the heart of the community and a key driver of the local economy, providing high quality jobs and supporting the wider tourism sector in Strathspey and Badenoch.
“Today’s announcement signals the importance of the Cairngorm Estate as a national asset for Scotland, with its potential as a mountain resort alongside its unique natural habitats. This investment will ensure it is ready to welcome thousands of visitors in all seasons of the year.
“With the funicular now set to be reinstated, and a range of other priority investments planned, we can continue to work with local stakeholders to ensure the surrounding businesses and communities can really begin to unlock Cairngorm’s potential and secure its future for decades to come.”
Alastair Somerville, national framework manager for appointed contractor Balfour Beatty, said: “We are pleased to be working on the Cairngorm funicular infrastructure project and look forward to continuing our close collaboration with Highlands and Islands Enterprise.”