Mountain railway rides into a storm

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The Government's stock among conservationists plunged yesterday with the approval of most of the public money needed to build a funicular railway on Cairn Gorm, one of Britain's highest mountains. Only a courtroom challenge now appears to stand in the way of the town's pounds 17m project.

Scottish Office ministers were divided over the railway, intended to boost the Aviemore ski area and create a year-round attraction. The semi- arctic Cairngorms are valued by mountaineers for their wild quality and by conservationists as a breeding ground for rare birds such as the Dotterel and Ptarmigan. But Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, has supported the view of local councillors and the quango Highlands Enterprise that the railway is crucial to economic rejuvenation.

The Cairn Gorm Chairlift Company say the funicular will provide 50 new jobs. The next hurdle will be on Tuesday at the Edinburgh Court of Sessions when the RSPB and Worldwide Fund for Nature will argue the railway would breach European environmental law.

Yesterday, backers of the scheme were believed to be lodging a pounds 2m application for European Regional Development funding. This, together with the court case, could be a deciding factor in the success of the project. The start of work on the railway will bring to an end a long-running political row, inherited by the Government from the Tories, which has seen ministers at odds on the value of the scheme. Bill Wright, of the Cairn Gorm campaign, said the Government's decision was extraordinary when there were so many doubts about the financial viability of this scheme and its potential effect on a fragile mountain habitat.