Back to the Top-The Cairngorm Mountain Railway

By: Eric Bryan

The Cairngorm funicular railway in the Cairngorms National Park has the double distinction of being the only funicular railway in Scotland, and the highest railway in the United Kingdom. Positioned on the north side of Cairn Gorm, the railway serves the Cairngorm Mountain alpine ski area that was developed in 1960.  The railway replaced the White Lady Chairlift, which opened in December 1961. The chairlift eventually proved to be too susceptible to the sometimes enormously strong mountain winds, while a funicular railway was deemed to be much more resistant to such weather hazards. Construction began on the railway in 1999, laying a 2000mm broad gauge track from the base station in the Coire Cas area 2km up the mountainside to Ptarmigan, more than 1097m above sea level. The steepest gradient the rails traverse is 23 degrees, or a 40 per cent inclination.


View of the funicular track. Photo: David Monniaux (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The railway has a middle station at Sheiling, situated at about 765m above sea level, and a passing loop above this where the single rail line splits into two, so that the two carriages can pass each other – one going up, the other on its way down. During the skiing season the carriages run at up to 36km/h, and in the off season the top speed is 18km/h. Not counting middle station stops, the trip to the top can take about 4-5 minutes in winter and 9 minutes in summer, or generally 5-8 minutes depending on season, weather and middle station stops. During summer the train does not make stops at the middle station.

Depending on various weather factors, the trains can operate safely in winds of 100-120km/h. In the approach to the top station the carriage enters a 230m long tunnel, and then arrives at the top platform which is concealed in the mountainside. Each carriage has a capacity of 120 standing passengers, and is wheelchair accessible. The stations at the base and at Ptarmigan are equipped with lift access to each level. Two 500kW motors mounted in series power the railway by pulling up one carriage as the other descends. Typically, the railway is operated from a control room at the Ptarmigan Station, but there are also operational controls at the base station and inside each carriage. Control, communication and safety systems plus backup systems are part of the railway network. The latter include standby generators and manually operated emergency systems for moving the carriages in case of power failure.

Reinstatement of the railway

Ptarmigan Station, the upper terminus of the railway. Photo: wfmillar (CC BY-SA 2.0).

At the Top Station are the Ptarmigan Restaurant, Shop at the Top gift shop, Cairngorm Gin Bar, Cairngorm Learning Zone, and of course panoramic views which can be accessed from the restaurant through floor to ceiling windows and via the viewing terrace. Due to mountain conservation efforts in cooperation with Scottish National Heritage, climbers and hillwalkers are forbidden to use the railway for uphill travel during the ski season. Further, during the summer, rail passengers are not allowed to explore the mountain from Ptarmigan Station, but hillwalkers who reach the upper station on their own may buy a downhill ticket to return to the lower terminus. The base station houses a Disability Sport UK office, hire shop, restaurant, ranger’s post and ticket office. Near the middle station is a Scottish Ski Club building.

Image courtesy of Cairngorm Mountain.

In October 2018 the railway closed due to concerns over structural weaknesses, and engineers undertook investigations of the system. The economic viability of continuing to operate the railway was also in question. But in October 2020 the Scottish Government announced a £20m funding package for work on the Cairngorm ski resort, £16m of which was slated for the repair, upgrade and reinstatement of the railway. The engineering works project, which included reinforcement of the viaduct and the installation of a new control system, started in November 2020 and finished in late 2022. The railway reopened on 26 January 2023. Trains depart regularly from the lower terminus from 10am to 3:30pm. The last train leaves the upper terminus at 4:30pm, though this schedule is weather dependant. Return railway tickets for adults are £22 standard, or £17 off peak. Juniors ride for £12.50 standard or £9.50 off peak. There are discounts for seniors and families, while children under five ride for free. Off peak prices apply to the 10am, 10:30am and 3:30pm trains, Monday thru Friday. Friends of Cairngorm Mountain season passes for 2023 are £45 for adults and £25 for juniors.

Cairngorms National Park

View of Cairn Gorm. Photo: Mike Pennington (CC BY-SA 2.0).

With an area of 4528 square kilometres, Cairngorms National Park is the largest national park in the UK. The park encompasses the Cairngorms mountain range and surrounding hills. Established by the Scottish Parliament in 2003, the park is visited by millions of tourists annually. Within the park is the largest stretch of Caledonian forest left in Scotland, and a number of castles are on park grounds. These include Loch an Eilein, Braemar, Ruthven Barracks, Corgarff, Glenbuchat, Blairfindy, Drumin, Blair, and Castle Roy. There are several nature reserves inside the park where visitors may see red squirrels, ospreys, crossbills, crested tit, lapwings, curlews, redshanks, greylag geese and whopper swans (the latter two during wintertime). In the Cairngorms are snow bunting, red grouse, golden eagle, ptarmigan and ring ouzel. Mountain hare, red deer, and the only semi-domesticated herd of reindeer in the British Isles – introduced from Sweden in 1952 – roam the slopes and plateaus. Wildlife can be seen from the more than 100 walking paths and trails in the park.

Cairn Gorm

Classed as a Munro, Cairn Gorm at 1244.8m high is the sixth tallest mountain in the British Isles. Cairn Gorm’s summit overlooks Strathspey, and the obscure Loch Avon is visible from the mount’s southern slopes. Despite its being named after the Cairngorm range, Ben Macdui is the tallest and most prominent mountain in the Cairngorms. Automated weather stations on the summit of Cairn Gorm provide wind speed, temperature and frost data. The mountain’s average of 194.4 frost days per year make these the UK’s coldest weather stations. Daytime temperatures which stay below 0 degrees Celsius have been recorded on Cairn Gorm during every month of the year. The coldest known temperature here is -26.9 degrees C, and the warmest is 25.5 degrees C. Cairn Gorm is the site of the highest recorded UK wind speed on land, with a 278km/h gust occurring in March 1986. An unofficial 312km/h gust was reported in December 2008, but was unconfirmed by the Met office.

Main photo: Image courtesy of Cairngorm Mountain.

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