THE public cost of the UK's highest railway which shut three years ago is set to soar to nearly £50m as the scale of structural repairs has widened, the Herald can reveal.

Calls have been made for a public inquiry into the management of the Cairngorm funicular as it emerged that the final price tag could end up being nearly three-and-a-half times the original estimate.

It has emerged that urgent repairs, that will see the facility out of action for this winter, are expected to rise 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.

The funicular is not expected to be in action until the latter half of next year at the earliest.

Details of the emerging scale of the works needed have come in private briefings held by the owner, the Scottish Government's Highland and Islands Enterprise agency.

A key issue is that as part of a cost-cutting measure as the scheme was being progressed, HIE agreed with the contractors at the time that proposed steel beams for the track would be replaced with concrete.

According to the Cairngorm National Park Authority strengthening works to the railway viaduct will involve reinforcing props and concrete bases beside 63 out of 94 piers.

The Cairngorms are 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.

Repairs have been ongoing with the world famous 1.3-mile funicular which was opened in 2001 but has been closed since September, 2018 began in November, last year.

The Scottish government has already pumped £16m towards the cost of fixing the railway which connects a base station with a restaurant and a ski area 1,097m (3,599ft) up Cairn Gorm mountain near Aviemore.

HIE says the mountain resort will stay open throughout winter, with skiers and snowboarders able to access the slopes using nine ski tows that will run every day when weather conditions are suitable.

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The economic development agency is proceeding with a claim for more than £14.5m damages plus interest and expenses against the now owners of Morrison Construction, Galliford Try Infrastructure Limited and Inverness-based AF Cruden Associates Limited, the civil and structural engineers for the scheme who have now been taken over by Glasgow-based Arch Henderson.

HIE which auditors say "faces significant financial pressures" have included a provision of £14.3m for the cost of reinstating the funicular which was expected to take two years.

The agency is making claims over defects in the design and construction of the railway and breaches of contracts which emerged after the funicular shut in October, 2018.

Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain, the former convenor of the Scottish Parliament's rural economy and connectivity committee was concerned that repair budget could be exceeded by 30% and that a public inquiry is needed.

“My fears are growing about the scale of the task that HIE has on its hands to repair the funicular railway and maximise the opportunities at Cairngorm Mountain.

"Repairing the Funicular Railway will go over-budget and will be delayed, in some part due to unforeseen construction issues that were not predicted and have only come to light as structures have been uncovered for repair.

“It now appears that the repair job will have to be more extensive than originally estimated, adding to expense of the overall project.

“While some positive progress is being made on the mountain, we cannot shy away from the historic issues which are still impacting the resort today.

“Therefore, it is clearer than ever to me that a full public inquiry must be launched into the Funicular Railway and no stone must be left unturned.

“Indeed, the inquiry must be given the power to investigate the Funicular Railway from its initial design and construction in 1999 to the present day.”

There is also concern that CairnGorm Mountain’s snow machine is having to be moved uphill so that it projects snow downwards instead of upwards.

The £1m Snowfactory machine was installed in March 2019 but last year was dogged with technical issues.

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Manufacturers TechnoAlpin had to address how best to filter water coming out of the machine, and how to ensure safe access for staff to carry out a range of maintenance tasks themselves.

The machine went on to create enough snow for the beginners’ slopes to be pisted and groomed for the 2019/20 season.

The plan to move it 1,000ft uphill from its current location is aimed at making at making it more effective.

Mr Mountain said the relocation was another "significant repair job".

“The previous SNP Rural Secretary may have championed its installation as a quick fix to deflect from his own woes, but now HIE have been left to relocate the factory 300 metres up the mountain so they are no longer pushing snow uphill," he said.

“Fixing this problem will be a significant engineering challenge, especially as the snow factory will have to be electrified too. Continuing to use fossil free fuel for the power plant is not ideal in an area of such pristine biodiversity."

HIE, which also owns the ski centre, secured planning permission for the repairs from the Cairngorm National Park Authority last year and Scottish government funding.

Balfour Beatty was appointed to reinstate the railway in a contract which also covers other works to turn the Highlands peak into a year-round tourist destination.

Once up and running, the funicular is expected to attract thousands of visitors a year, generating benefits for the wider economy in Badenoch and Strathspey, where the tourism and hospitality sectors have been hit hard by Covid-19.

HIE has approved up to £780,000 for an extensive refurbishment of the Ptarmigan building that sits on the plateau and includes the UK’s highest restaurant, a shop, exhibition space and viewing platforms.

Following competitive tender, resort operator Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland) Ltd (CMSL) has awarded a contract for the first phase of the Ptarmigan works to Simpson Builders Ltd, based in Beauly. The refurbishment is due to be completed by the end of 2021.

HIE said they were not in a position to confirm the revised budget for the funicular works.