A high-speed train arriving at Berlin's Central Station. kaffeeeinstein/Flickr

Trains on a new high-speed route could ultimately be driverless, too.

On Wednesday, the E.U.’s most populous country got a little bit smaller. Thanks to a newly electrified stretch of railway track just opened across Germany’s Thuringian Forest, travel times between Berlin and Munich will soon be slashed. By December 2017, it will take a whole two hours less to travel between Germany’s largest and third largest cities.

Reducing the 505 kilometer (314 mile) journey to just over 4 hours, down from 6 hours and 15 minutes, will finally offer genuinely fast land transit across one of Central Europe’s most important routes. When the convenience of downtown-to-downtown travel is factored in, the high-speed rail link (trains will eventuall run at speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour) will give planes and highways a run for their money.

The plan might sound like a classic example of often cited German efficiency, if it weren’t for the fact that the country has had to wait quite a while for the link. In fact, they’ve had to wait no less than 26 years.

That’s because the new route actually stems from a transit project put together at the time of German reunification, way back in 1991, which was intended to help integrate the country’s two long-separated sectors. Previously, some trains had in fact run between Berlin and Munich during Germany’s period of Cold War division. Upgrading the line between the two to make the journey faster was nonetheless hardly a priority for either German state during the era, meaning that by 1991 the shortest rail route between the two cities hadn’t had a major upgrade since before World War II. Faster trains couldn’t run at speed on this track, so even after reunification, the 6 hour-plus journey involved a detour via Frankfurt—you can see how ludicrous the ear-shaped curve this required was in this map. Today, that such a state of affairs could endure in continental Europe’s economic and political powerhouse seems crazy.

The project took so long for two reasons. Firstly, it was slowed down by a mixture of political jockeying and funding hurdles. A fight between two of Germany’s federal states—Saxony and Thuringia—over whose territory would host the new route provided several years delay, while funding dried up just before the millennium, leaving the track site growing weeds for a protracted seven-year hiatus.

There is, however, another more understandable reason. The terrain the new line needed to cross was by no means easy. The Thuringian Forest is, despite its name, actually a low mountain range, albeit one whose flanks are heavily wooded. It lies midway between Berlin and Bavaria, a broad bar of rough country that looks almost as if it was expressly designed to keep the two regions separate. Crossing this area with high-speed tracks meant constructing 29 new railway viaducts and 22 tunnels, one of which is 8 kilometers (or about 5 miles) long. Given the landscape, it’s not surprising that the new stretch of track cost €10 billion ($11.15 billion). Even now, the electrified track isn’t running at full speed—it still needs further testing with slower trains, whose speeds will steadily be increased until they are permitted to hit the full 300 km per hour in December 2017.

A funicular railway through steep terrain in the Thuringian Forest.  (Michael Panse/Flickr)

To make the track yet more expensive, it has been fitted (as all European high-speed tracks eventually will) with the new European Train Control System, which harmonizes Europe’s different signaling and protection systems into one and will, in its final form, remove the need for line-side signals that could be difficult or impossible for drivers to read at high speeds. Installing this system has a major, if controversial, advantage: It could mean the trains could ultimately run without a driver. Remote radio monitoring, with positioning and speed information relayed by beacons and sensors, could one day replace the role of a controller on the train itself, although it’s likely that services would still run with a driver for emergencies for some time.

The new Berlin-Munich high-speed route may have taken 26 years to get here, but in pushing away at the boundaries of how our train networks function, it still has the chance to be a harbinger of the future.

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