What does the nation's busiest rail corridor need to make train service faster, more frequent, and more dependable?

Federal planners will be in Philadelphia this month as part of a nine-city visit to explore the future of the 457-mile Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston.

The Federal Railroad Administration is in the early stages of a 38-month process to figure out how to improve rail travel on the corridor for the next 40 years.

By March 2015, the FRA is to come up with a comprehensive plan, including an environmental-impact statement, for remaking the corridor, with proposals for updated equipment, more trains, new stations and possible new routes, with estimates of costs and benefits.

Without an infusion of money to revamp the overcrowded, outdated rail corridor, the Northeast's economic future will be stifled, the FRA said. The region now generates 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Underscoring the corridor's importance, Philadelphia played host last month to international rail executives holding their Eighth World Congress on High-Speed Rail.

The current rail corridor, which handles more than 2,000 Amtrak, commuter and freight trains daily, suffers from major congestion and delays, and "many components of the system are in a state of disrepair or, worse, have reached the point of obsolescence," the agency said.

The FRA will seek ways to increase capacity, boost train speeds and reliability, while adding service along the main route and on feeder lines such as the Keystone Corridor linking Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

The FRA's analysis is broader than the recent proposal by Amtrak for 220-mile-an-hour rail service between Washington and Boston by 2040. That Amtrak plan calls for trips from Philadelphia to New York in 37 minutes, half the time of the fastest Acela Express trains now.

Amtrak's proposed $151 billion high-speed rail service may be considered by FRA planners as part of the solution, but FRA says it will consider other alternatives for high-speed travel, as well as new options for commuter and freight trains.

A public meeting on the scope of the study will be held on Aug. 20 at SEPTA headquarters, 1234 Market St., from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

FRA planners will present a brief overview at 5:30 p.m. and will be available to take public comments and answer questions.

Similar public sessions will be held this month in Boston, Providence, New Haven, New York, Newark, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington.

Comments can also be sent to Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, USDOT, Federal Railroad Administration, Office of Railroad Policy & Development, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, D.C. 20590, or e-mailed to info@necfuture.com, or online at the project's website: www.necfuture.com

The formal comment period will end Sept. 14.

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.