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CAIRNGORM IN CRISIS? - Jane Peel, Chief Reporter
Monday October 1, 2018 - Email this article to a friend

Weeks before the ski season, the railway that transports skiers and snowboarders to the top of the Scottish mountain has been closed indefinitely.



A safety inspection of the Cairngorm funicular has identified structural concerns and a full assessment by specialist engineers has been ordered.

The owners of the Cairngorm Estate, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), say the investigation will last "several weeks".

In a statement issued on Monday evening, HIE said there were "new concerns raised in a recent routine inspection" relating to structures supporting the railway track.

The investigation will include excavation to allow the foundations around the problem area to be be inspected.

The findings are not expected until November and only then will it become clear what remedial work is necessary and how long it will take.

It's a potential disaster for the local snowsports industry and the wider business community around Aviemore who fear the funicular could be out of action all winter.

Following the removal of some chairlifts, the funicular is the only way for skiers and snowboarders to reach the slopes at the top if there's no or insufficient snow below the mid-station.

HIE said the extended period of closure would cause inconvenience and have serious implications for the commercial operation of the business, as "the funicular is the integral part of the visitor experience throughout the year".

The funicular has already been closed for much of the last month with the operators, CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML) - part of Natural Retreats -  telling followers on social media that following an annual inspection the company had been forced to "restrict the parameters of our normal operating procedures".

It's understood that these restricted parameters involved introducing a speed limit, reducing the number of passengers, and not running the train in certain weather conditions or windspeeds.

Several people who have already bought winter season lift passes are now asking if they're going to get their money back.

Cairngorm mountain railwayCairngorm mountain railway














Neither HIE nor CairnGorm Mountain Ltd addressed that point in the statement released on Monday.

"As operators of such a unique visitor attraction as the funicular, we take our responsibility and duty of care to the public and our staff extremely seriously," CairnGorm's Chief Operating Officer, Ewan Kearney said.

"It is in everybody's best interests to close the funicular to allow the engineers to conduct their investigation. Our priority is to get a clear picture of any faults with the funicular in order to develop a course of action that addresses these concerns.

"Rest assured, we do not underestimate the significance of this situation to the entire local area, including our own employees, and are working to resolve this situation quickly and safely, for the future benefit of all mountain visitors.

"At this stage, we are unable to provide a detailed timeline for the re-opening of the funicular and will issue further updates as we are able to do so."

Cairngorm MountainCairngorm Mountain

















The problems with the funicular have dismayed many in the Aviemore community who are critical of the way Cairngorm is being run by CairnGorm Mountain Ltd and its parent company, Natural Retrreats.

Many of them campaigned, unsucessfully, against the closure and eventual removal of the Ciste chairlift, which left the funicular as the only non-surface lift on the mountain.

Critics say it's now clear that HIE knew there were problems with the structure of the funicular when they dismantled the chairs.

"The long-term strategy that has focused on the funicular to the detriment of other uplift has left the mountain business extremely vulnerable whenever the funicular is inoperable," said Alan Brattey of the Aviemore Business Association.

He said the funicular had been beset by operational inefficiencies due to design flaws and he questioned whether the current problems stemmed from attempts to cut costs when it was built.

"The folly of HIE's long term strategy at Cairngorm is now being fully exposed," he said.

"If the funicular cannot operate continuously and efficiently over the winter months, then there is insufficient uplift capacity to encourage snowsports customers to come to Cairngorm."

Mr Brattey said skiers and snowboarders were already deserting the mountain with Cairngorm having less than 25 per cent share of the Scottish snowsports market last season - its worst ever performance.

Share of the Scottish snowsports marketShare of the Scottish snowsports market - source Winterhighland




















HIE's head of business development Susan Smith said the closure of the funicular was a highly regrettable situation over which they had very limited control.

"Clearly it will have a considerable impact on the commercial operations on Cairngorm, and be of concern to those employed at the resort. Our thoughts are very much with them as well as those who use the mountain and its facilities.

"We are treating this as extremely urgent and doing all we can to address the problem and have the funicular returned to full service as quickly as possible.

"In the meantime, safety must come first and we fully respect CML's decision to act on the precautionary advice of the inspectors."

The funicular was completed in 2001 at a cost of more than £20 million.

A visual inspection in December 2016 identified cracks in some supporting concrete beams.

Although they were not considered a safety risk, the inspector said in his report that the cracking would "ultimately reduce the design life of the structure".

It was not clear whether it was a design or construction related problem.

The inspector said he was "concerned by the general condition of the Funicular Railway given its relatively young age".

His report was released under a Freedom of Information Request.

The Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust, a body set up in 2017 with the aim of taking over ownership of the Cairngorm estate, has issued a statement on the situation:

"The trust is devastated to hear of yet another setback at Cairngorm, and we hope a timely solution can be found for customers and staff.

"We are disappointed that it took a month since the funicular closures started for either HIE or Cairngorm to make a statement, and would urge them to be more forthcoming in future on what is a critical issue for the area.

"We hope that we can be part of the solution and that HIE will engage meaningfully with the trust in forming contingency plans and on any affect this issue has on the overall strategy for Cairngorm."

There's been an angry reaction to Monday's closure announcement on social media.

These were some of the comments on the Save The Ciste Facebook page...

Comments on Save The Ciste FacebookFacebook reaction


















And some more....

Save The Ciste Facebook commentsFacebook reaction


















And here are some comments on the Facebook page of Winterhighland, an online Scottish snowsports information site......

Facebook commentsFacebook reaction



















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