If the business case for fixing Cairngorm's funicular stands up to scrutiny, let's scrutinise it

Locals, environmental groups and other stakeholders are concerned that the business case for repairing the funicular railway at the Cairngorm Mountain ski area will be released at the same time as the Scottish Government decision on whether to go ahead, and are calling for it to be debated first

Wednesday, 30th September 2020, 4:17 pm
Updated Wednesday, 30th September 2020, 4:58 pm
The funicular railway at Cairngorm Mountain has been out of action since 2018
The funicular railway at Cairngorm Mountain has been out of action since 2018

It’s almost exactly two years now since the funicular railway at the Cairngorm Mountain ski area was found to be kaput, and “shortly,” we are told, the Scottish Government will announce its decision on what is to be done about it. Option A: repair it, at an estimated cost of £10 million. Option B: demolish it, at an estimated cost of £13.3 million.

When put in those terms, the answer seems obvious: ten million quid sure is a lot of money to spend on fixing a thing, but at least in the end you’re left with a thing, and hopefully a functioning thing, too. Spending £13.3 million to completely remove all trace of said thing seems a bit steep by comparison.

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Unfortunately, however, the Funicular Conundrum – as nobody’s been calling it – is much more complicated than it appears. For a start, there’s the vexed question of The Future. If the funicular, which was only completed as recently as 2001 (at a cost of £26 million), requires £10 million to fix in 2020, who’s to say it won’t need another £10 million spent on it in 2040, and the same again in 2060? And speaking of 2060, given the alarming rate at which our planet is hotting up, will Scottish ski resorts still be economically viable by then? Four Seasons has every intention of continuing to slide around on Scottish snow for as long as it lasts, and he would desperately love for there still to be bottomless powder to play in on Cairngorm’s West Wall in the winter of 2060/61 (when, if he’s still around, he will be approaching his 83rd birthday and no doubt relying on all the wonders of late 21st-century medicine to stop his knees from falling apart). But having spent a bit of time with data scientist Mike Spencer last year, and examined his predictions for snow cover in the Cairngorms in the next few decades, it’s hard not to be pessimistic.

According to Spencer’s modelling, by 2080 the upper slopes at Cairngorm (those above 800m) will only see snow cover for 30 to 40 days a year on average, down from around 110 days now, with the lower slopes (600m-800m) only snow-covered for around 20 days a year. Is there any point fixing a very hi-tech ski lift for the benefit of future generations, ask the sceptics, if there’s hardly going to be any snow for those future generations to ski?

The counter-argument is that the funicular is a year-round attraction, and it draws people to the area not just in winter but in the summer months too. But as locals have pointed out, the overcrowding problems suffered this summer in Glenmore and around Loch Morlich suggest that the Cairngorms National Park is perfectly capable of attracting visitors all by itself, without the need for a fancy mountain railway.

And so it goes, back and forth. As I said earlier, the question of what to do next is much more complicated than it seems, and it comes at a time when, frankly, those in power have much bigger fish to fry. Still, this particular fish has been hanging around for so long now it’s starting to smell, so, prompted by a written question by John Finnie of the Scottish Green Party, Fergus Ewing, cabinet secretary for the rural economy, replied a couple of weeks back that a decision and a copy of the business case for repairing the funicular, produced by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), would both be published “shortly.” This led to a certain amount of alarm in some quarters, with four organisations – Cairngorms Campaign, North East Mountain Trust, Ramblers Scotland and Scottish Wild Land Group – putting out a joint press release calling for the business case to be announced first and then be publicly debated before a decision was reached.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Dave Windle of North East Mountain Trust, said: “The business case for supporting the repair of the funicular must be made public now, before a decision is taken. Only in this way can people and businesses on Speyside, skiers and those who are concerned about the mountain, be assured that repair of the funicular is the best option.”

He added “It will be totally unacceptable if the Government takes a decision before allowing MSPs and the public to consider the rationale for, and the costs of, the case presented by HIE.”

Whatever side of the debate you’re on it’s hard to disagree. Ten million quid seemed like a lot of money this time last year, when it was revealed that’s how much it would cost to fix the funicular, but now, with the economy on its knees, it seems like an awful lot more. If the business case for repairs stands up to scrutiny, what would be the harm in allowing it to be examined?

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