Storm gathers over pounds 17m 'train to the heavens'

JOHN ARLIDGE

The bitter battle between skiers and environmentalists over plans to build a funicular railway in the Cairngorm mountains is due to reach a climax this week as the Government's environmental watchdog and the Highland Regional Council prepare to deliver their verdict.

Councillors and members of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) meet this week to discuss the scheme, which was unveiled three years ago by the Cairngorm Chairlift Company. The firm, which runs the Aviemore ski centre, wants to build Scotland's first mountain railway to attract more skiers and summer tourists to Britain's highest peaks. Managers argue that the project will create up to 60 new jobs in the Strath Spey area and inject pounds 10m into the fragile Highland economy. Without it, the loss-making Aviemore resort could be forced to close.

But SNH, the statutory body which advises ministers on environmental issues north of the border, has lodged formal planning objections. Members fear the pounds 17m scheme will encourage so many people to take to the hills that the fragile 4,000ft Cairngorm plateau will suffer irreparable damage. Ramblers, mountaineers and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds also oppose the project.

Anxious to overcome the objections, the Cairngorm Chairlift Company has revised its plans. The final draft, sent to SNH three weeks ago, proposes to limit the size of the mountain-top visitor centre and to introduce a ranger service. Tim Whittome, the company's chief executive, argues that even though the one-and-a-quarter mile railway is designed to carry 500 people every hour, the ranger system will ensure they do not trample the sensitive alpine vegetation of the world heritage site or endanger the nesting sites of rare birds like the dotterel and the ptarmigan.

Observers expect the SNH to reverse its decision and approve the project tomorrow. Whatever the decision, ramblers and mountaineers will call on Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, to order a public inquiry into the development. Robin Campbell, president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, described the railway as an "intrusion into Britain's last great wilderness ... a crowning aesthetic abomination".

Even if Mr Forsyth refuses an inquiry, the RSPB, which owns 32,000 acres in the Cairngorms, says it will challenge the project in the European Court of Justice. For Highlanders, the "train to the heavens" looks set for a long delay.

Granite cathedrals, page 13

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