Concerns have been raised about the future of the beleaguered Scottish Government agency-owned Cairngorm railway as it emerged that it will be closed for an indefinite period and won't be available for the start of the winter season.

Calls have been made for a public inquiry after it was confirmed that safety issues are continuing to dog the UK's highest railway, which was taken out of service on August 25 while a series of 'snagging' works were carried out and was due back in action at the start of September. But after nearly four months it remains out of service.

There is concern that there is now no timescale for its return amidst soaring public costs.

The development has become a familiar theme for the key facility for the Cairngorms, a major Scottish tourism attraction and centre for recreation with downhill hillwalking and rock climbing a major draw for the 1.92m who visit the national park every year from around the world.

The crucial funicular, which was opened in 2001 and connects a base station with a restaurant and a ski area 1,097m (3,599ft) up Cairn Gorm mountain near Aviemore, was closed in September, 2018 due to structural issues.

READ MORE: Payout in Scot gov agency court fight over Cairngorm rail costs

Owner, the Scottish Government's Highland and Islands Enterprise agency had at one point included a provision of £14.3m for the cost of reinstating the funicular which had been expected to take two years.

But the costs of the troubled railway have ended up costing nearly three-and-a-half times the original estimate.

The urgent repairs rose by a third from £16m to £21.5m.

The faults were discovered after the costs of building the funicular spiralled from £14.8m to £26.75m.

According to the Cairngorm National Park Authority strengthening works after issues to the railway viaduct had emerged five years ago, involved reinforcing props and concrete bases beside 63 out of 94 piers.

The Herald:

It finally came back into action in January after a four-year hiatus - but then promptly closed "temporarily" nine months later.

Eleven days after the works were hoped to be completed "relatively quickly" at the end of August but on September 6, it emerged that it would not be back up and running until the end of the month.

The agency later said the scale and complexity of the project, which includes continuous testing to ensure public safety, had led it to revise its schedule to complete the job to mid-October.

In mid-October, HIE said the works to resolve the issues would have to continue into November and apologised to visitors.

But now the Herald has learned that the railway will not be ready for the start of the Cairngorm season on December 22 and its return to action is indefinite.

Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain, the former convenor of the Scottish Parliament's rural economy and connectivity committee and current convener of Holyrood's transport committee said: “This doesn’t surprise me, but it sickens me, and it absolutely reiterates the need for a public inquiry."

In February, 2021, then rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing said it was "inappropriate" to have a public inquiry into the running of the railway in the midst of its then continual closure - and before the soaring costs emerged and the latest shutdown.

"Whilst Fergus Ewing says this isn’t appropriate, no one should forget that he was part of the problem when he was Cabinet Secretary," added Mr Mountain.

It is understood moves are being made by activists who have been following the state of the railway to take the matter to the transport minister Fiona Hyslop asking her to "reconsider the safety of the funicular, through further safety reports" before it is re-opened.

Blogger Nick Kempe, who with others has been closely following the progress of the funicular said: "The work appears focussed on a few main areas - the problems are not just snagging, [it looks like] something more fundamental".

The Herald:

The decision to close the railway came after the leading Scottish Government economic development agency settled a court action against constructors and designers over structural problems. HIE said that it had received £11m after settling the court action.

It had been pursuing a £14.5m claim against the company that owns Morrisons Construction and the civil and structural engineers for the scheme.

The agency made claims over defects in the design and construction of the railway and breaches of contracts that emerged after the funicular was forced to shut five years ago.

HIE said after it was forced to close the funicular again in August that a 12-month snagging and inspection programme has been running since the relaunch, "as is usual practice with complex engineering projects".

It later said the disruption followed an inspection that showed that some of the ‘scarf joint assemblies’ that link the beams at the top of the piers did not meet the required tension.

The 1.7km viaduct is supported by 94 piers of varying heights, each one effectively a small bridge.

It ascends 450 metres up Cairn Gorm, with the track entering a 300m tunnel in its final stage leading into the top station.

News of the long-running case emerged in 2021 when it was revealed that ministers had to refund part of an EU grant for the original Cairngorm funicular because of discrepancies in the way it tendered for the work as costs spiralled.

An HIE spokesman said: "Cairngorm Mountain will launch its winter season on December 22, but without the funicular.

"Everything is being done to complete the works as quickly as possible, but we’re unable to provide a definite timescale at present.

"Testing has shown that the technical solutions being applied are effective. However, the engineering challenges involved are compounded by the mountain location and weather."

It comes as the Cairngorm resort announced it was about to open for its winter with season passes now sold out.

Susan Smith, chief executive of Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland) Limited (CMSL) said: “We look forward to welcoming back visitors for another snowsports season. While the funicular railway is temporarily closed, we will continue to do all we can to make Cairngorm Mountain the exciting destination it has always been. This season, visitors can enjoy the wide range of activities available at the resort, from skiing and snowboarding to dining in our cosy cafés and restaurants.”