The FRA is seeking to increase capacity, enhance train speeds, and boost reliability, while adding service along the main route and on feeder lines such as the Keystone Corridor linking Philadelphia and Harrisburg.
Several "preliminary alternatives" will be unveiled by spring 2013, and the list will be narrowed to "reasonable" alternatives by early 2014, said Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, of the FRA's office of railroad policy and development.
By March 2015, the FRA is to come up with a "preferred alternative" for remaking the corridor, complete with estimates of costs and benefits.
Nearly 100 people showed up Monday at SEPTA's Center City headquarters to talk to FRA planners and see a brief presentation on the planning process.
Reyes-Alicea said that rail service on the crowded, outdated Northeast Corridor "will deteriorate if no action is taken" and that improvements "will require major investment."
The corridor, which handles more than 2,000 Amtrak, commuter, and freight trains daily, suffers from major congestion and delays.
Many of those attending the session supported improvements on the corridor, though several were skeptical of possible costs, construction disruptions, and effects on commuter service.
Matthew Mitchell, representing the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, said, "Incremental improvements to the NEC are preferable to an idealized system that is too expensive to build in our lifetime."
He said the FRA should consider Amtrak's proposal for a high-speed route through a new station in Center City, as well as suggestions to make 30th Street Station the hub for any future high-speed line.
"Both alternatives should be advanced through the preliminary alternative development and given equal weight during that process," Mitchell said.
Vukan R. Vuchic, a longtime University of Pennsylvania professor of city and regional planning and an advocate of better rail systems, said high-speed trains would be "a virtual new mode of transportation," moving travelers three times faster than cars.
He said that without high-speed trains, the Northeast Corridor was "losing the competition" for business and economic growth to foreign cities such as Tokyo, Beijing, and London.
Andrew Saul of Media questioned the need or affordability of high-speed trains. Instead, he said, "bring back a complete commuter rail system - it's cheaper and more egalitarian.
"The United States can't afford to compete with the rest of the world on every front," Saul said.
Paolo Pezzotta, a transportation planner from Chester Heights, said the planning process was too narrowly focused; he said it should include a national strategy and look at ways to include other modes of travel.
Similar public sessions are being held this month in Boston, Providence, New Haven, New York, Newark, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington.
Public comments will be accepted until Sept. 14. Comments may be sent to Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, USDOT, Federal Railroad Administration, Office of Railroad Policy and Development, 1200 New Jersey Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. 20590; e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org; or submitted online at the project's website: www.necfuture.com.
Contact Paul Nussbaum
at 215-854-4587 or email@example.com .