Highland rail plan gets the go-ahead

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The Independent Online
The controversial plan to build a funicular railway on Cairn Gorm, one of Britain's highest mountains, moved closer to reality yesterday when Scottish Natural Heritage grudgingly withdrew its objection to the pounds 17m project.

SNH chairman Magnus Magnusson and his board met for more than three hours to discuss the Cairngorm Chairlift Company's revised plan for ensuring rail users do not trample the environmentally sensitive high mountain plateau.

Though the railway is intended to revitalise the Aviemore ski area, boost summer visitor numbers and provide jobs, the SNH decision will dismay conservation groups.

The RSPB, who own a large tract of the mountainside, are worried at the impact on the nesting site of rare birds such as the dotterel and snow bunting. The society is likely to challenge the railway through the European Commission as the area is subject to the EU's most stringent rules for environment protection.

SNH, the Government's adviser on conservation in Scotland, said: "While the development may be made tolerable, we remain highly sceptical that it is desirable or is the best development option for tourism in this area.

"Our experience of this case confirms our view that there is an urgent need for a more strategic and consensus-building approach to planning."

Despite the cautiously-worded decision, there was a huge sigh of relief from the company, who said the project was essential to the survival of Britain's biggest ski resort. It has now to put together a financial package, some pounds 13m of it from public funds, including a crucial pounds 5m from the EU.

The company's chairman, Hamish Swan, said: "We are pleased that redevelopment of the ski area will now proceed without a costly and lengthy public inquiry."

Construction of the 2km funicular, elevated on 93 concrete pillars and designed to carry about 1,200 skiers an hour, is due start in the spring of 1997.