The authors of far-reaching 2018 report on potential investment priorities at Cairngorm Mountain have reviewed and updated their findings.
US-based consultants SE Group were commissioned last year by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), owner of Cairngorm estate. Their brief was to study Cairngorm’s potential as a premier Scottish ski centre and visitor attraction, and identify potential investments that would maximise its drawing power and contribution to the local economy.
In October 2018, however, as the report was being concluded, safety concerns raised in an engineers’ inspection led to the Cairngorm funicular railway being taken out of service.
In light of this, SE Group were asked to review their findings and address immediate priorities for investment at Cairngorm while the funicular is not running.
Although the funicular presents no immediate danger to the public, investigations by specialist engineers have concluded that piers, beams and foundations all need to be strengthened, and new bearings installed, before it can run safely again.
HIE has consistently stated that its ambition is to repair the structure and return the mountain railway to service, which all investigations carried out so far indicate would be technically achievable.
A combination of public procurement regulations and extreme weather conditions over winter mean that the earliest a programme of repairs could begin would be spring or summer 2020. The funicular will therefore remain out of service over winter 2019-20.
While it is not running, snowsports access is planned to be maintained through a combination of artificial snow making at lower levels and ski tows to the higher runs.
SE Group’s new findings, published on the HIE website as an addendum to their original report, again focus on investments with the greatest potential impact to improve the visitor experience and generate more business.
Proposed enhancements would also aim to create a more efficient and economically viable operation capable of maintaining its popularity throughout the year.
Noting that the funicular has played a vital role in enabling all-season access to the mountain, they conclude that it can again become a central part of the visitor offering.
Proposals for winter include a new aerial chairlift featuring six-person lifts; enhanced snow making, and improvements to the terrain on the mountainside, including smoother runs and additional skiing routes. A ‘carpet conveyor’ would improve the beginner experience, and actions to improve the base area facilities and increase food options are also recommended.
Taken together, these improvements are designed to bring Cairngorm close to achieving its previous ski visitor numbers of around 130,000 a year.
Increasing the resort’s summer appeal is equally important. While the consultants remain convinced of the value of introducing a mountain coaster, they have reviewed the location and now recommend that the staging area is within the base area, improving ease of access for all visitors.
Opportunities for mountain biking should continue to be explored, the report says, while recognising the need for robust measures to protect the environment.
A welcoming base area is recommended, with improved food and drink offers, interpretative signage, and family activities that are sympathetic to the natural environment and the Cairngorm brand.
The two reports are expected to be influential in informing a masterplan for Cairngorm that HIE will lead on developing, with strong input invited from local people. Public consultation with partner organisations and communities in Badenoch and Strathspey is currently being planned, and statutory consents would also be required for any significant developments.
Douglas Cowan, director of communities and place with HIE, said: “Cairngorm is a key asset for Scotland, both environmentally and economically, and the funicular is a key asset for Cairngorm.
“It’s absolutely vital that we continue to address the serious challenges caused by the funicular being out of action and ensure that Cairngorm Mountain remains a significant driver of the local economy.
“HIE and the Scottish Government are agreed that repair is the preferred option in principle, though it’s important to stress that we need to conclude the engineers’ reviews and determine costs and funding sources before this can be approved.
“At the same time, we must continue to look to the long-term, and ensure that local people have a meaningful opportunity to put forward views that will inform a future masterplan that will shape our experience of Cairngorm for decades to come.”
Susan Smith, interim chief executive of Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland) Ltd, said:
“This has been a difficult period for Cairngorm Mountain, but the staff remain absolutely dedicated to the mountain and the business, and are putting in a tremendous effort to create a brighter future.
“We very much welcome this update, which underlines both the fantastic potential of Cairngorm as a national asset and the importance of the funicular to a successful mountain resort.
“It is absolutely vital that we establish CMSL as a viable business, with strong growth potential and a key role in supporting the wider economy of Badenoch and Strathspey.
“With support from HIE, we are already implementing some of the original report’s recommendations, including improvements to facilities and activities at the base area, in ways that are in keeping with the mountain environment.”