The proposal, which would require building a new set of tracks from Boston to Washington, D.C., is at the concept stage and there's no funding plan in place, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said at a news conference at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.
The project would likely use some combination of public and private investment and hopefully be phased in starting in 2015, he said.
The Next-Gen High Speed Rail line would have hubs in Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington and would cut travel times in half or better. It would reduce the travel time between Washington and New York from 162 minutes to 96 minutes, according to Amtrak. The travel time between New York and Boston would go from 215 minutes to 84 minutes.
About 12 million riders a year use Amtrak along the northeast corridor.
Under the high-speed system envisioned, the trains would be able to accommodate about 33.7 million passengers by 2040. Amtrak officials estimated the high-speed system would generate an $900 million more a year with the added ridership.
High-speed rail would not only help reduce congestion on the rails, but also in the skies, since it would be more enticing to passengers making shorter trips, according to Amtrak officials and others.
"No one should take a plane for a trip shorter than 500 miles," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, noting that the system would be comparable to service now linking European countries.
The new system would support about 44,000 construction jobs annually over the anticipated 25-year process, as well as about 120,000 permanent jobs, Amtrak said.
But it would be expensive - averaging about $4 billion a year over three decades.
In 2009, Amtrak had a total budget of about $3.5 billion, with about $1.49 billion coming from the federal government. It spent $655 million of that federal funding on capital projects.
Nevertheless, Rendell said, political leaders must generate the will to get the project done before current system is overwhelmed.
"It isn't a dream, it isn't a fantasy, it isn't an illusion," the Democratic governor said. "Can we afford it? ... We can't afford not to do it."