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Midwest Rail Rangers Visit England, Scotland & Wales: Cairngorm Mountain Railway

Midwest Rail Rangers Visit England, Scotland & Wales: Part 5 of 8

The Cairngorm Mountain Railway

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Published: November 1, 2018

In May 2018, APRHF Vice President Robert Tabern and APRHF Secretary Kandace Tabern spent two weeks exploring the various train lines of England, Scotland, and Wales... everything from heritage steam locomotive trips... to taking the Eurostar at nearly 200mph for a day trip to Paris, France. Robert and Kandace will be sharing their candid experiences with you over the course of the next eight months in a series of TrainWeb articles that document their journeys. Hopefully this will inspire you to someday ride the rails of the United Kingdom if you haven't got the chance yet.  Below is a map of what railroad routes the Tabern's were able to cover:


We hope you have been enjoying our eight part series on railways of the United Kingdom. After spending four days exploring the railroads around London and an amazing journey north on the Caledonian Sleeper… we were firmly in the beautiful Scottish Highlands… and it was time to check out the Cairngorm Mountain Funicular Railway. This is Scotland’s only funicular railway and it is also the highest funicular in the U.K.


Compared to the other historical train lines that we rode in England, Scotland, and Wales… the Cairngorm Mountain Railway is really just an infant. Construction started in 1999 and the railway opened in December 2001. The building of the funicular was initiated because the White Lady Chairlift, which it replaced, was too sensitive for the extreme winds in the area.  So, no, the company who runs the resort was not necessarily looking to build a new railroad line – it was something constructed more out of necessity due to the extreme weather experienced in the Cairngorm Mountains.

We began our journey to the funicular in the town of Aviemore, Scotland, which we drove to after obtaining a rental car in Inverness. If you do not want to drive, there is rail service to Aviemore (from both the ‘Caledonian Sleeper’ and ‘ScotRail’) and then a public bus up to the Cairngorm Mountain Funicular. It is about eight miles between Aviemore and the railroad. Despite numerous roundabouts and driving on the opposite side of the road as the United States, we found having a rental car to be the best option for our travel plans. Just be sure that you specifically request an automatic car if you do not know how to drive a manual – we learned this lesson quite the hard way!  Also, manual cars cost a lot more to rent and are very rare in this area of Scotland and even across all of Europe.


Anyway, the ride originates at the Base Station (2,083 feet above sea level) where there is a restaurant, shop, ticket office, shop, and a rangers' office. We were told our personal tour guide for the afternoon, John Swinden, would meet us at the top of the mountain, as he was also assigned to operating the funicular that day too (and it’s controlled from a center at the top where the elevation is 3,599 feet above sea level). John serves as the HR & Training Manager for the railroad most days, but clearly wears many hats. Having a very in-depth technical knowledge of the operations, John provided us a lot of detail about how the funicular operated and was able to take us behind-the-scenes where the public is normally not allowed to go.

So, let’s move into the facts and figures of the Cairngorm Mountain Railroad… the maximum operating speed of the funicular is ten meters per second (32.8 feet/second) during the ski season and five meters per second (16.4 feet/second) the rest of the year, including when we were riding (on Tuesday, May 22, 2018). At these speeds, the trip takes about four minutes in winter and nine minutes during the summer. John explained the reason for this seasonal shift in speed is that winter-time skiers want to get to the top of the mountain as quickly to get in as many runs as possible. During the other times, people are mainly using the train to spot wildlife or take pictures… and want a more leisurely ride.
The single track line has a passing loop just above the middle station. During ascent, the maximum gradient is 23 degrees. The total length of the funicular railway track is 6,460 feet, during which the route rises by 1,516 feet. Most of the route is single track, with a short passing loop near half way. Up to 120 standing passengers can be carried in each of the system's two carriages. At peak times there can be 150,000-160,000 non-winter sports visitors, combined with a further 50,000-120,000 annual sports visitors during the winter.  Depending on wind direction, wind speed trend and weather forecast the trains can operate in winds of 60 to 75 mph.


The funicular railway operates by 'hauling' up one carriage using electric motors to pull the haul rope as the other carriage descends at the same time. The system is powered by two stationary in series 500 kW electric motors, a gear box and a 'soft start-soft stop' control system which can increase the electrical frequency and vary the current and voltage to control the carriage speeds as they approach or leave a station. A hydraulically operated 'counter' rope is connected to both carriages to maintain haul rope tension. The two carriages are permanently connected by the haul rope and the counter rope and can never operate independently. Once again thanks to John for providing us with all of these interesting numbers and inner workings of the funicular.

Finally, If you enjoyed our writing, we would also encourage you to check out the 11 "Outside the Rails" railroad route guidebooks that we published for the various Amtrak passenger rail routes through the Upper Midwest. They are available on our website, Our new e-book versions and train guide MP3 podcasts are also available here. We also feature the guidebooks written by Eva Hoffman for various Amtrak railroad lines in the west and east!

Our 3 remaining "APRHF Visits England, Scotland & Wales" TrainWeb trip reports will include:
  • December 2018 - ScotRail  (Part 6 of 8)
  • January 2019 -  Strathspey Steam Railway  (Part 7 of 8)
  • February 2019 - The Jacobite Train   (Part 8 of 8)



Official Cairngorm Mountain Railway Webpage


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