Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner. Facebook Messenger An icon of the facebook messenger app logo. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Facebook Messenger An icon of the Twitter app logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. WhatsApp Messenger An icon of the Whatsapp messenger app logo. Email An icon of an mail envelope. Copy link A decentered black square over a white square.

Cairngorm funicular: Is public cash being thrown at a train to nowhere?

Campaigners warn the UK’s highest railway is “doomed to failure” with no timescale for its return to operation.
Justin Bowie
Questions are growing over the Cairngorm Funicular's future.
Questions are growing over the Cairngorm Funicular's future.

The Cairngorm mountain railway returned with a fanfare in January 2023 after eye-watering, over-budget £25 million repairs kept it out of business for nearly five years.

Yet within seven months the funicular was shut again so further “snagging works” could be carried out.

No exact timetable can be given for when it will be back in action, leading some campaigners to say it’s “doomed to failure” and should be removed.

The SNP Government is facing renewed demands for a full inquiry.

As bills rise and pressure builds, does the funicular have a viable future, or has public money been wasted on a train to nowhere?

Among the concerns are:

  • Will tourists decide to stay away?
  • Is it time to cut losses and remove the multi-million infrastructure?
  • Can an inquiry get to the heart of any design problems?
Blue train carriages operating on the funicular on Cairngorm Mountain.
The funicular has been out of action again since last summer. Image: HIE.

An optimistic start

The funicular – despite vocal opposition during the planning stages – first started operating in 2001 after two years of construction at a cost of £19.5 million.

It was designed to open the mountain up to more visitors, boosting tourism around Aviemore and the spectacular landscape of the region.

The train – the highest in the UK – also replaced the White Lady chairlift which had been carrying skiers up the mountain since 1961.

Two more chairlifts and three surface lifts were taken out of commission between 2002 and 2008.

When can we expect the railway to reopen?

When the funicular temporarily closed again, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) – who are responsible for it – hoped it would be back weeks later in September.

This target was soon missed, as were plans to get the mountain railway back in commission by November for the winter skiing season.

Now HIE is unable to guarantee that the funicular will be working again by the end of 2024.

Is the funicular ‘fundamentally flawed’?

Mountaineer Nick Kempe. Image: Supplied

Campaigners who who argued the funicular is poor value for money feel vindicated.

“They’ve spent another £25 million on a fundamentally flawed structure,” said mountaineer Nick Kempe, who has written extensively about the funicular’s failings.

He added: “They might be able to patch it together, but it won’t be for very long.”

Campaigner Gordon Bulloch, who lives near the mountain resort in Grantown-on-Spey, is another outspoken critic.

He said: “They might get it working, but it won’t work for long.

“A brave businessman knows when to say ‘I got it wrong’. I don’t think HIE is inclined to do that.

“They’re still in this mindset where if they keep throwing money at the funicular, it’ll suddenly come good.”

Snowboarders at Cairngorm Mountain. Image: Peter Jolly

Questions over costs

HIE bosses stand by analysis from five years ago which shows reinstating the funicular was the cheapest option.

At the time, a report said it would cost just over £16 million to fix the structure.

By contrast, estimates suggested at least £52 million would have to be spent on removing the funicular and replacing it with a gondola.

But the over-budget repairs ended up costing £9 million more than was initially hoped, casting doubts over the figures.

Cairngorm Mountain is a popular skiing destination.

HIE says the repairs will not cost too much because construction firm Balfour Beatty is contracted to carry out the work.

An HIE spokesperson said: “We share the disappointment and frustration felt by many local people and all visitors to Cairngorm while the funicular remains out of service.

“Although there is no reopening date at present, we are working closely with Balfour Beatty who are progressing these works and will provide a clearer update as soon as possible.”

HIE also won £11 million compensation last year after taking legal action against three organisations over the mountain railway’s original design.

The agency says it carried out “rigorous” work before approving repairs when the structure went out of commission in 2018.

But Mr Bulloch disputes this. “Clearly they didn’t, because they got it wrong,” he said.

How ‘terror’ fears prevent design details being released

Mr Bulloch has been trying to access reports outlining the decision-making process.

He was shocked in February when UK transport chiefs said they could not release information because of terrorism fears.

Gordon Bulloch believes the funicular should be removed.

His freedom of information request was partially blocked due to worries “hostile actors” would learn more about any safety concerns, increasing risks of an attack.

Mr Bulloch told us he has challenged the decision.

Is the delay harming tourism?

The wider area, which was designated a national park in 2003, is estimated to attract nearly two million visitors a year.

But are the funicular’s failure at risk of irreversibly damaging skiing in the region, given alternatives such as Glencoe and Glenshee are available?

Cairngorm Mountain Sports, in Aviemore.

Martin Bell, marketing manager for Cairngorm Mountain Sports in Aviemore, said a poor snow season compounded problems with the railway.

He told us: “The fact the railway isn’t working is going to make other resorts appeal more.

“I’m sure they’re doing all they can, but it’s taking a while, and the local economy needs as much help as it can get.

He added: “I think they’re in a no-win situation. If they spend more money they’ll be criticised.

“But they have to do something. Ripping it out will also cost a fortune. I’m just glad it’s not my choice. Now it’s almost the norm, and we’re getting used to it.”

HIE says the funicular is a “key cultural attraction” for tourists visiting the Cairngorms.

But Mr Bulloch, an avid mountain climber who used to run a B&B in his hometown, disputes this.

“They keep trotting out that the funicular is crucial to the economy. That is complete nonsense,” he said.

“The funicular has hardly operated in the last five or six years. Do you see Aviemore on its knees?”

Edward Mountain has urged NHS Highland to speed up treatment times for breast cancer patients. Image: Andrew Cowan/ Scottish Parliament
Highlands and Islands Tory MSP Edward Mountain. Image: Andrew Cowan/ Scottish Parliament

One man trying to get an answer to that is the aptly named Edward Mountain, an MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

He is repeating demands for full inquiry, and says: “So much potential spending from tourists and skiers has been squandered because of this – the whole thing is a complete disgrace.”

Is there still hope for the funicular?

Inverness and Nairn MSP Fergus Ewing, who was the SNP’s rural economy and tourism chief when repairs were approved, remains bullish about its future.

He said: “The funicular is being repaired and will resume service. It also provides all-year round access to Cairngorm.”

SNP MSP Fergus Ewing. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson.

But mountaineer Mr Kempe said Mr Ewing had made a “mistake” by backing the mountain railway for so long.

He said: “Sooner or later the politicians are going to have to accept the inevitable. It’s doomed to failure.”