The Angry Corrie 43: Oct-Nov 1999

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Funny peculiar - a brief guide to the funicular

Once upon a time, there was a mountain which held the snow nicely and it was identified as being ideal for skiing development. The only trouble was that it was called Braeriach and was a bit inaccessible - so by the late 1950s the focus for ski development in Strath- spey had become Cairn Gorm and specifically Coire Cas. A tortuous road snaked up from Glenmore and by the early sixties - lo and behold - there were a chairlift and a few drag tows. Over the years this development expanded into Coire na Ciste and famously didn't expand twice into Lurcher's Gully. After thirty years or so, the company decided it was time to replace the ancient chairlift, so to bring the ski area into the 21st century they decided to replace it with a funicular railway. Right? Well, no ... wrong, actually.

What you have to realise is that the funicular has sod all to do with skiing. It's a crude attempt by the Cairngorm Chairlift Company, aided and abetted by the Highland Council and diverse non-governmental organisations to develop Cairn Gorm as a year-round attraction, primarily aimed at the coach party market and as such a direct competitor to the Aonach Mor Gondola (incidentally, is anyone else irritated to distraction by the meaningless phrase Nevis Range?) Now, I can't blame CCC for trying to make money - up to now they've been spectacularly good at being a non-profit organisation - and since Highlands and Islands Enterprise are charged with encouraging enterprise (hence the name, I guess) I can't be too surprised about their enthusiasm for the project. No, the villains of the piece are Scottish Natural Heritage, with a special runners- up prize for the Highland Council which has deliberately and quite cynically portrayed the concerns and fears of thousands of objectors as being 'anti-skiing' and/or 'anti-jobs'. The Highland Council has happily fronted the pro-funicular alliance and has exploited the north of Scotland's understandable fear of outside control: campaigners are always described by where they live rather than what they know or believe. The mythology is that the funicular is supported by everyone who lives in the Highlands and opposed by everyone else; in fact, there were more objections than letters of support from Highland residents when the scheme was originally advertised. Now, planning decisions can't be taken on a vox pop basis, but neither should the Council ignore the views of those people who have real worries about this lunacy, oops, scheme.

Right, that's enough about the Council. It's time for Scottish Natural Heritage and its approval of the Visitor Management Plan put forward by the Chairlift Company. This is a really good wheeze - basically, SNH have said that provided no one wanders off from the top station of the funicular, they're happy about the environmental impact of the scheme. So digging a huge trench most of the way up a north-facing coire is okay, but a few hillwalkers enjoying the view from the top of Cairn Gorm is definitely not on - and just to make sure, in summer we'll restrict the ski road and Coire Cas car park to funicular traffic, and (this is a master-stroke) say we're promoting the Long Walk In beloved of environmentalists and hillgoers. This is beyond satire or parody, this is pure surrealism. The Visitor Management Plan involves closing the sugarbowl and Coire na Ciste car parks in summer, and designating the ski road (built with public money, remember) as a clearway, thus forcing walkers, climbers, birdwatchers, botanists and the rest to make their way to Cairn Gorm along the tarmac from Glenmore, unless you want to pay funicular prices to park at Coire Cas. In the winter, the funicular's a straight replacement for the chairlift, so it'll be pretty much business as usual ...until the CCC decide that winter's officially over, which may not be on the same date as ski tourers and ice climbers think it's over.

Pay attention: here comes the science part. No, don't worry, it's not biology or even geology, the science which will undermine the funicular is economics. Crudely, it won't make money. The market research which supported the original planning application was carried out before the Visitor Management Plan (aka The Closed System) was dreamed up; obviously a lot fewer people are going to use the funicular if they can't even get out at the top - think how many tourists use the current sack elevator and stagger to the summit, then subtract them from your calculations. That point was rather bravely made by David Hayes, owner of the Landmark Centre in Carrbridge, and I unreservedly recommend his facilities to you. There is, however, a much broader point, about the kinds of tourist-related jobs the Highlands should encourage. The Cairngorms Campaign's excellent Manifesto, which came out in 1997, suggests that '... the sensitive development of appropriate tourism, based on a wide variety of natural, cultural and recreational activities in the area, is the best short-term and long- term way forward for the local economy ... developments should be small-scale, locally controlled, rely on local labour and respect the local way of life'. Amen to that.

So, as V I Lenin used to say, what is to be done? Well, you could write to your MSP, but they mostly seem to regard the funicular as old news and refuse to get excited. It's jobs, after all, and being against jobs is like being against motherhood. You could join and support the Cairngorms Campaign (PO Box 39, Dunkeld, Perthshire, since you ask) which continues to publicise and campaign against the daft scheme. And you could discourage your Auntie Blodwyn from going on a coach trip that includes a ride on the funicular. Okay?

Sean the Revelator

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