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Stairway to heaven

On Scotland's first mountain railway the race is on to get site work finished before the snow comes next month. Richard Bennett reports from the highest construction site in the UK.

Skiers tend to be high maintenance thrill seekers. They demand quick and convenient access to the slopes, maximum time on the piste, and minimal exposure to the elements. So when the Cairngorm ski area needed to replace its aging open ski lifts, it opted for something more comfortable.

Alpine style gondolas are an option, but are susceptible to high winds, and far too visibly obtrusive for the largest nature reserve in the UK. The solution chosen was a novel one, a funicular railway, as found in the Alps and beloved by British Victorian seaside resorts.

The 2km funicular line - essentially a pair of rail wagons winched up and down the mountain on ropes - is being built to provide safe and weatherproof access to the 598ha ski area. Winter winds blow across the Cairngorms straight from the Arctic and can reach 200km/h, generating windchills of -28degreesC and below. Chairlifts are often temporarily closed in the high winds and can leave skiers stranded.

This not only frustrates the skiers but more importantly has safety implications. The new funicular, designed by engineer Alan Cruden, contractor Morrison and Austrian funicular specialist Dopplemayr, can winch skiers up the mountain in 125km/h winds, which means it keeps running most of the time.

The £14.7M project is being jointly funded by Highlands & Islands Enterprise, the European Regional Development fund and the Cairngorm Chairlift Company, and is intended to regenerate tourism to the alpine style resort of Aviemore which has been in decline since the early 90's. The railway will carry standing skiers up the slopes in the winter, in groups of 120.

Summer visitors in groups of 50 will be seated, and taken up to admire the view from the restaurant. To prevent erosion, these visitors will be not allowed to walk out onto the mountain.

Building the railway at 1,000m in a mountain environment - one of the most important sub-arctic habitats in the UK - is not easy.

But it does have its attractions.

'This job takes the biscuit. I am getting paid for coming up this mountain: it's superb', says Toby Kliskey of project manager Turner & Townsend.

It has taken 10 years for the project to get planning permission. Vigorous resistance to the project was encountered from a number of groups, such as the RSPB, who feared that the easier public access provided by a railway would destroy the mountain habitat. The Cairngorms are home to some of Britain's rarest birds, including the snowbunting, dotterel and ptarmigan.

Mountaineering groups raised concerns over allowing a predicted 165,000 visitors a year onto the UK's largest single mass of high ground above 900m, which boasts four of Britain's five highest mountains. Planning permission was eventually granted by the Highlands Council in August last year and work started on site the very next day.

'For a project manager, it's got everything: diversity, politics, lobbyists, money. It couldn't be better, ' says Kliskey.

The project involves contractor Morrison in laying 2km of 2m gauge funicular track up the mountainside, at slopes of 2328degrees. For its whole length the track is raised off the delicate soils - by up to 7.5m - on 93 concrete piers. These support the 18m span, prefabricated track sections. Every 15 piers a large concrete anchor block is bolted into the granite to resist horizontal forces.

Also included in the project is refurbishment of the base station and construction of a new summit station and restaurant, designed to withstand windspeeds of an incredible 270km/h.

At the top of the slope the railway goes into a 250m long stretch of cut and cover tunnel - the highest underground railway in the UK - which had to be blasted through granite.

The biggest problem on site has been getting hundreds of tonnes of material up and down the mountain without making a haulroad. Helicopters have been used, but at up to £2,500 per hour for a 5t lift they are not cheap.

Some use has been made of an existing road by 4x4 dumpers, Unimogs, and caterpillar tracked backhoes.

But for the bulk of haulage Morrision has opted to use an aerial skyway or cable crane, normally used in dam construction and forestry. Similar to a temporary cable car system, the crane is suspended from 11, 40m high, cable stayed pylons. Specially built by Gantner in Austria at a cost of over £1M, the crane, with an 8t load capacity, is believed to be the largest ever.

Most material is hauled up this way. The crane can work in winds up to 96km/h and allows minimal damage to the delicate soil, vegetation and water systems. Concrete for the railway piers is poured directly from two 4t skips on the crane, currently at a rate of about two piers a day, moving up the slope from the base station.

For Morrison site foreman Bob Sutherland a big worry is getting all the piers, track and major excavation done before the weather closes in. 'We have had a good summer, but winter is coming now and the pressure is on, ' he says. Accurate weather records are available for the ski area, and the team expects snow to stop the job at the end of October. The cable crane will have to be dismantled to allow the area to revert to a ski-slope.

Sutherland hopes to get all his plant down before the snows come. 'If the backhoes get caught, they will stay up there all winter, ' he says. 'We can't use conventional metal tracked vehicles in steep snow. They will just take off like a sledge.'

Work will start on site again next April and the job is expected to be finished in time for the 2001 ski season. Just in time for those demanding skiers.

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