Eight miles south east of Aviemore and high on the northern flank of Cairn Gorm lies the CairnGorm Mountain Railway. This funicular railway runs for two kilometers through the Cairngorm ski area. In doing so it climbs 460m to the Ptarmigan top station, 150m below the summit of the mountain.
The Cairngorm plateau, mostly above 4,000ft in height, is one of the most rare and fragile environments in Scotland. However, Cairn Gorm's northern corries of Coire Cas and Coire na Ciste have been the location for extensive ski-related development since the opening of the White Lady chairlift here on 23 December 1961.
Until 2001, visitors made use of a chairlift operating all year round that carried them in two stages up to the Ptarmigan Restaurant. As a result the area benefitted from the year-round business that went with being a major ski centre as well as a summer attraction; but the mountain suffered from the high levels of pedestrian traffic resulting from such easy access.
In Summer 1999 work started on the construction of the CairnGorm Mountain Railway and this opened for business on 23 December 2001, 40 years to the day after the opening of the original chair lift.
The railway is operated very differently in winter and summer. In winter the priority is to get skiers up the hill, so the train takes just five minutes to cover the 2km between the two stations, and each train can carry up to 120 skiers. An important feature is the train's ability to operate in winds of up to 75mph. This is a vast improvement on the 25-30mph wind speed limits of the old chair lifts, which meant that they had to stop running on up to 40% of winter days.
In summer the journey is part of the experience and the train takes up to 60 passengers to the top station at a lower speed to give you a chance to enjoy the views, especially to the north. This is helped by the airy feel to the large carriages, each of which measures 10.5m long and 3.2m wide, and by the panoramic windows on the sides and the roof of the trains.
If the operation of the trains is different in winter and summer, the function and operation of the Ptarmigan top station is even more so. In winter this is the upper focus for many of the ski runs, and somewhere to replace all those lost calories. In summer the Ptarmigan itself is the destination. In order to prevent damage to the mountain and danger to the visitors, you can only ascend on the CairnGorm Mountain Railway in summer on the basis that exit from the top station building housing the exhibition, shop, restaurant, viewing terrace etc. to the surrounding mountain is not allowed. The only exception to this is as part of one of the small guided groups which began operating in 2010.
Visitors wishing to climb the mountain independently do so from the car park at the base station, at a height of 630m. And for the more conservative, or less experienced, three waymarked walks have been provided within Coire Cas, one of which is suitable for wheelchair users. It is possible to climb the mountain on foot, and then use the railway to descend.
The Ptarmigan is made up of five main areas. The first is the top station for the funicular itself. This looks down into the tunnel in which the train hides from view for the top 250m of its run. Visitors move from there into the large and extremely impressive Mountain Exhibition, an effective and informative evocation of the mountain environment, even for those of us with short attention spans. On the floor above is a large shop which provides an interesting and certainly very different alternative to Aviemore's facelifted shops.
The core of the Ptarmigan is the large split-level restaurant complete with bar and stunning panoramic views. Here you can have lunch while admiring those views: or reserve a table for one of the evening dinners available from Thursday to Sunday in summer. You can even get married here. The best views, and perhaps the best reason to use the CairnGorm Mountain Railway, is the large viewing terrace placed across the north side of the Ptarmigan. This gives wide views to the north, and allows a real feel for the mountain without having any impact on it.
So, is the CairnGorm Mountain Railway a good thing for the Cairngorms? Well it has certainly resulted in an improved service for skiers. And with new direct and indirect jobs it has provided have certainly been good for the economy of the area.
But what about the controversy that preceded it? We have three reasons for believing that the funicular is likely to have a positive rather than a negative effect on the area. First, although construction did cause disturbance to the mountain, this has since been repaired. And second, after the building of the funicular the number of people walking on the summit plateau in summer dropped by over two thirds.
And third? Not an environmental argument, but a lady in a wheelchair enjoying the view from the restaurant reminded us that the funicular's high level of accessibility has opened the enjoyment of the high mountain environment to many people who could never experience it in any other way.