The Angry Corrie 53: Apr-May 2002
Seven years after the word "funicular" first appeared in these pages (TAC21, p14), the latest and loveliest adornment to Cairn Gorm is finally up and running. Oh joy. The debate over its merits now switches from theory to reality, and already there has been concern over queuing problems, platform delays, and what the management called a "minor" incident on 19 January when an electrical fault caused a jolting stop and an injury to at least one paying passenger. There's no substitute for first-hand experience, even if it's on a know-your-enemy basis, so
We've had the Dome, the Holyrood money-pit (aka Dewar's Folly) and the continuing saga of Wembley or Not Wembley. The CairnGorm (sic) Mountain Railway - usually known as "the funicular" - has oft been spoken of as a Highland equivalent, albeit on a smaller scale, of the above disasters. Around £18 million has gone in public subsidy to a project in which only Highland Council and the Chairlift Company seem to have confidence. TAC has given considerable coverage of the many dodgy issues surrounding this, the loopy visitor projections and the like. However, the funicular is now, like death, taxes and Everest, there.
It opened officially on 24 December 2001, following a press bash the day before. (To which TAC was not invited - Ed.) The opening was reported on Teletext straight from the press releases: the CMR will "underpin over 2500 local jobs". Your reporter visited the new facility on 27 December in the midst of the north's post-Christmas snowfalls, when some limited skiing was available on the slopes.
The station building is separate from the day lodge and marginally nearer to the car park. The building is a little bare - nowt more than the platforms, a ticket office and some toilets. There's a Malky McCormack cartoon mural opposite the ticket office: Mr McCormack himself was aloft on a stepladder applying the finishing touches. The wobbly ladder had been steadied by shoving a trainer under one leg.
Tickets are £7.50 return. You have the choice, if you're a non-skier, of a "funicular only" ticket or a "ski spectator" ticket, the latter meaning you're allowed out at the top. Of course this, controversially, will change during the critical summer season.
The single-coach trains themselves are, as exclusively predicted in TAC, a funny colour - a peculiar bluey-purple. Standing only, of course, and a radio was playing Christmas music when I was there. The route sticks pretty closely to the former chairlift track and the main surprise is that it is not a pure funicular. Funiculars generally ascend at a more or less constant angle, but the CMR follows the slopes more closely. After the site of the former middle chairlift station (where there is a bare station platform), the angle steepens for the pull up to the Ptarmigan. Just after the middle station there is a loop where you pass the downbound train.
The views are fine, and the semi-funicular design means the railway is not as visually intrusive as I had feared. All signs of the chairlift have gone. There was, however, considerable snow cover on 27 December, so we'll have to wait to see what construction/demolition mess lies beneath the winter wonderland.
The last quarter-mile or so is in a shallow tunnel, and the train finally docks in the top station at an alarmingly steep angle. The journey took less than ten minutes, even with a stop at the middle station and another pause at the passing loop. If the bottom station seemed bare, the new Ptarmigan was, in December, positively bereft. No caff, and no SmellyVision MountainTop Exhibition Experience. (Bob Kinnaird, chief exec, 20 Feb: "Our restaurant in the Ptarmigan will open in March" - Ed.) We decided to nip outside for some snowballs and snowman-building (our party included a six-year-old) and it was fun getting in the way of the serious skiers. What a po-faced breed they are: thank heaven for snowboarders.
Our tickets were "funicular only", but this was meaningless as the tickets were never checked - not at the bottom, the top, or on the train. I would have thought, given the profit margins and the ropy visitor projections, that the railway would have to be pretty zealous in fare collection, but it seems not.
And so into the carriage for the return journey: trains run about every 15-20 minutes at busy periods. We now saw something I had never encountered in all my visits to Coire Cas: a covey of four ptarmigan, barely discernible in their winter white, flying low across the slope beside the railway and landing by a snow fence. Perhaps they don't associate trains with people, unlike the chairlift, where each chair had at least one obvious, dangling human. If these shy birds can withstand the skiing, the chairlift demolition and the railway construction, then at least something good is happening in ski country.
On the last stretch to the lower station a snow-boarder kept pace alongside the train. Soon we were back where we had started, with Malky still creating away like billy-o. Actually, it was a very pleasant afternoon out, and where else in the Highlands can you catch a train on Boxing Day or Ne'erday?
But the questions remain. The train can withstand conditions much more severe than could the chairlift. What good will that do in winter, though, if the approach roads are closed and the wind is too strong for skiing? And what will happen in the summer when users are caged like animals at the top?
Ed. - The lead quote on the CairnGorm Mountain leaflet ("A natural high!") comes from Alain "methamphetamine" Baxter: "One of the best things about coming home is skiing with my mates in ski patrol". If Baxter's appeal fails, watch his words vanish faster than snow off a funicular carriage.