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Cairngorm funicular: MSP calls for public inquiry into ‘failures’ over troubled railway

Cairngorm Funicular
Cairngorm Funicular

A call has been made for an “essential” public inquiry to “end the secrecy” of the closure of the Cairngorm Mountain funicular.

A £16million rescue plan was announced last year to repair the world-famous attraction, which was closed in 2018 due to safety concerns over its structure.

Conservative MSP Edward Mountain is campaigning for a robust public inquiry into the operation of the funicular and its faults.

But government development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who own the Cairngorm resort, including the railway, has insisted it must “protect” its information as it will be evidence relevant to legal action.

‘The public deserve to know what went on’

Mr Mountain said: “There are still too many unanswered questions from HIE and the SNP Government as to who and what was responsible for the funicular railway’s construction failures.

“There remains a lack of transparency over what went wrong at Cairngorm Mountain. The public deserve to know what went on and it’s time to end the secrecy.

Popular Cairngorm funicular to be reinstated after £20million funding boost

“That’s why we need a public inquiry which is given a far wider remit to investigate if the funicular railway was poorly maintained, or poorly constructed or if there were faults in the original design.

“Badenoch and Strathspey needs Cairngorm Mountain to be a successful business all year round and that is why I support the repairing of the funicular railway.

“However, we need to know if the funicular is being repaired with confidence and we need assurances that we won’t see a repeat of the previous construction failure. It is a fiasco and this is why a public inquiry is essential.”

‘In danger of repeating the errors that have been made before’

Edward Mountain MSP

Mr Mountain has written to HIE chief executive Charlotte Wright expressing his concerns and calling for the inquiry.

He said: “I remain unconvinced that the management of the mountain was sufficiently robust and professional, which has without doubt lead to many of the issues we face today.

“Until this is bottomed out and fully understood we are in danger of repeating the errors that have been made before.

“Whilst I fully accept that the railway needs significant repairs, I can’t find the reasons for the construction failure. Was the funicular poorly constructed or was there a failure in the original design?

“Surely if the reason for the failure is not known there is no way that it can be repaired with confidence.”

‘Works will secure funicular for a very long time’

An HIE spokesman added: “The works under way to reinstate the funicular have been designed specifically to address the weaknesses identified in the structure and therefore prevent a repeat of the issues we have seen.

“We can be confident that, together with a robust monitoring and maintenance programme, the works will secure the funicular for a very long time.

“Meanwhile, it is in the public interest that our legal case is as strong as possible. This means protecting information and evidence that will be relevant to the outcome of court proceedings.”

In correspondence with Mr Mountain, the chief executive confirmed they are currently pursuing a legal claim against the original contractor and design team for the funicular.

She added: “We therefore need to take care to balance our desire for transparency regarding our decisions and actions at Cairngorm against the need to protect evidence that will play an important role in determining the outcome of these proceedings.

Sandy McCook/DCT

“Based on legal advice, we believe the public interest at this time is best served by HIE protecting our ability to present as strong a case as we are able to with regard to this claim.”

Meanwhile, contractor Balfour Beatty is due to return on site in April, after being paused at the start of winter, subject to factors including weather and Covid-19 guidance.

An HIE spokesman said: “We are looking for a project manager to help deliver the early stages of our long-term strategy for Cairngorm Mountain Estate, as a successful tourism business that drives wider local economic activity.

“Key to the role will be the successful reinstatement of the funicular railway, together with priorities identified in the Cairngorm Masterplan, which is currently being finalised.

Sandy McCook/DCT

It is a fixed term post for two years, with a starting salary of £44,542 and the closing date is February 21.

Cairngorm Funicular: How did we get here?

The funicular, built at a cost of £19.5m and opened in 2001, was taken out of operation due to unsafe track supports in September 2018.

When the funicular opened Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (CML) assumed operation of the railway, but HIE took it into public ownership in 2008.

In 2014 ownership of CML was transferred to Natural Assets Investments Ltd (NAIL)

In July 2018 CML’s consultant engineers raised potential safety concerns and in September it was taken out of service.

Two months later directors placed the company in administration due to mounting cash flow and creditor pressures.

In December 2018 a new subsidiary, Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland) Limited (CMSL), was established.

Last May, the development agency was granted planning permission by the Cairngorm National Park Authority (CNPA) to carry out repairs to 63 of the funicular’s 94 concrete supporting piers.

A total of £20 million is being invested make the struggling ski centre a year-round draw.

In addition to the £16m funicular repairs, £4.35m was approved for “potential additional capital requirements,” including building improvements, electrification of snow cannons, existing tow infrastructure, paths and car parking.

HIE will foot £10.35m of the bill. It will use nearly £8.5m raised from last year’s sale of the Centre for Health Science to the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The Scottish Government is contributing a further £10.6m to the project.

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