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"The Cairngorm Funicular Railway by Tim Whittome - Edinburgh meeting of Tuesday 16 February 2010

Tim Whittome addressed the Scottish Region's February meeting in Edinburgh on the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, but before getting on to the subject of the railway, provided a brief background by looking at a number of funicular railways around the world along with the principles of how they operate by way of setting the scene.

In general, funicular railways consist of rope hauled carriages on rails designed to go up and down steep hills. The weight of the carriages can be balanced by a counterweight and this reduces the powere required. The counterweight is usually a second carriage and the railway can consist of two tracks, or in the case of the Cairngorm funicular, of one track with a passing loop for the two carriages.

Over the years, a variety of power sources have been used for funicular railway including water power, steam power, diesel and electrical systems. Modern funicular railways are almost all electrically powered and can be found in many locations throughout the world. Modern funicular railways can move large numbers of passengers at relatively high speeds, for example, the 1994 Barcelona system, built for that years Olympic Games can move 8,000 passengers an hour in each direction.

Turning to the Caringorm Funicular Railway, Tim pointed out that it is the first modern funicular railway in the UK and replaced a life expired chair-lift system built in 1961. With the need to replace the chair-lift, the options included a replacement chair-lift and a variety of configurations were looked at. Another option was a funicular railway. One of the key factors in the decision making process was the wind factor. A chair lift can operate with winds up to around 30 mph but the funicular railway can operate in winds of up to 70mph. The funicular railway also offers faster journey times and has a higher capacity.

However, there were some problems to overcome. Cairngorm mountain is an area of extreme environmental sensitivity and this would impact on the building of the railway. Finance had to be secured and the high altitude was another issue to be considered. Once these had been overcome, construction could begin.

From the Base station where the ticket office is located the track runs to the Sheilling or Middle station and has a gradient of 14 degrees. From there the track leads to the passing loop and then through a tunnel to Ptarmigan or Top station, where there is a restaurant and tourist facilities. The same building houses the control room and machinery for operating the funicular railway, but this is separated from the public areas by a dividing wall.

Construction of the railway posed some unique challenges, the prime one was to ensure no impact on the environment and minimum impact on the hillside. This required an environmental impact assessment to be carried out as part of the design process. Construction began in 1999 and the railway opened in December 2001. The track gauge is 2 metres and the the railway is 1970 metres in length, over which the line rises by 462 metres.

The maximum operating speed during the ski season is 22.5 mph. This gives a journey time of about 4 minutes. In summer the speed is reduced and the journey takes 9 minutes. Power is by two 500kW motors and the two carriages are permanently connected to the rope. There are 4 independent braking systems to ensure safety and the carriages are wheelchair accessible. Each carriage can accommodate up to 120 standing passengers in winter of 50 seated passengers in summer. The machinery and carriages were built in Switzerland.

There is a visitor management system in operation and during non skiing months visitors cannot travel to Ptarmigan or Top Station and then walk onto the mountain. Visitors can access the mountain by footpath fromt eh car parks and can also travel down from the top on the railway.

After his presentation, Tim answered many questions put to him by the appreciative audience and the evening was concluded by the Chairman, Dougie Adamson, presenting one of the Scottish Regions engraved silver quaichs to the speaker.

Report by John Fender.


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