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Three new visions for northeast rail

A look at the future of rail on the East Coast produced some pretty radical ideas for revamped Amtrak service in Philadelphia.

Some of these proposals may seen unlikely to materialize, but they're part of a first of its kind project that seeks to create a unified vision for the future of rail along the nation's northeast states.

Among the ideas pitched in the Federal Railroad Administration's environmental impact statement for the Northeast Corridor Futures report are a passenger rail stop at the Philadelphia Airport and another in the city's downtown. Those possibilities are being suggested as the FRA looks 25 years into the future, when the population on the East Coast will be larger and their reliance on rail is projected to be more frequent.

"Part of it is where is the demand, and where is the ridership?" said Matthew Lehner, the agency's associate administrator for communications.  "Where is the untapped ridership?"

The FRA estimates an additional six million people will live in the Northeast Corridor over the next 30 years, and current trends show rail will be a significant mover of people. Fifteen years ago, most trips between Washington and New York were traveled by plane. Today, the FRA reported, about 70 percent of those trips are taken by train. About 700,000 people travel the corridor each week day.

The report determined the Northeast Corridor has a $100 million impact on the economy each week day, about $35 billion per year, Lehner said.

"We can spend that amount investing or we can have nothing for $35 billion," he said.

The report is a first for the Northeast Corridor, the rail route used by Amtrak that runs along the nearly 440 miles between Boston and Washington D.C. After receiving input from the public and city leaders, a final proposal should be released by summer 2016. That proposal could look like one of these below, or could borrow parts and pieces from all of them to create something different, Lehner said.

The report offers four different possibilities for the next 25 years of passenger rail service. All the maps below were provided by the FRA.

In the first, shown here…

there is nothing done to upgrade the Northeast Corridor, which serves cities from Washington D.C. to Boston. Service would decline. No new projects would be undertaken, and it would still cost about $20 billion over 25 years, it's estimated.

The next three proposals highlight increasingly ambitious plans to reshape the corridor. Each proposal addresses issues of capacity, speed and access to rail, with the first alternative designed to meet demand by 2040, while the third in some places would completely reinvent the Northeast Corridor to meet demand into the middle of the century.

The first…

brings almost no changes to Philadelphia. It simply brings the railroad network up to a state of good repair, increases capacity ands add some speed to some stretches of rail.The cost? $65 billion.

The second proposal is where things get interesting for Philadelphia.

This proposal would create a stop at Philadelphia International Airport and would bypass curves in track that slow trains down with new rail construction. The price tag for that project is estimated to be $135 billion.

The last proposal would require some massive changes to the Northeast Corridor.

It pitches a station in downtown Philly and offers some very different routes for trains in New England that veer away from Amtrak's current coast hugging path. This reimagining of the region's rail network would cost $290 billion.

The proposals are all broad strokes. There are no specifics on exactly how this would be done or paid for. Money is a particularly huge question mark, as Congress has been unable to pass a long-term transportation funding bill, much less anything as ambitious as some of these models.

Over the next two months the proposals will be shopped around 11 of the affected cities for public comments and input. The session in Philadelphia will be held January 11 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at SEPTA's headquarters at 12th and Market streets.

Twenty-five years from now, the Northeast Corridor may not look like any of the four possibilities, but it's interesting to know it may look very different than it does today.