The trip from Portland to Boston could be shortened by 10 minutes.

PORTLAND (AP) – A federal court ruling clears the way for Amtrak and Guilford Rail Systems to settle their dispute over the top speed of the Downeaster train, the head of Maine’s Office of Passenger Transportation said.

Ron Ray said the ruling by the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., supports Amtrak’s efforts to increase the maximum speed from 59 to 79 mph.

That could cut the travel time between Boston and Portland by up to 10 minutes. The current trip, including eight station stops during the summer, takes two hours and 45 minutes.

Amtrak and Guilford are talking about additional track improvements, such as fixing stretches near Wells and adding a side track. Roy said the 114-mile trip to Boston could be shortened to two hours and 30 minutes.

Chop Hardenbergh, editor of Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, a weekly newsletter, said the higher speeds would help the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority market the train, even if it only shortens the run by a few minutes.

“Trains going 79 mph are clearly faster than the speeds people are supposed to be going down the interstate,” he said.

Because the train stops at stations and slows down in other places, such as swampy areas and curves, the average speed for the trip currently is 41 mph.

Hardenbergh said he wouldn’t be surprised if Guilford appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, and expressed doubts that the train will be traveling at 79 mph any time soon.

“With Guilford, are you kidding,” he said. “This is not the end.”

Guilford owns the track in Maine and New Hampshire and has been fighting with Amtrak over track standards and higher speeds since the early 1990s.

Guilford has insisted that sturdier tracks and firmer rail beds are needed to safely run trains at 79 mph. Amtrak paid Guilford $50 million to overhaul the tracks in 2000 and 2001.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board said a year ago it was satisfied that tests run on the new 115-pound track proved it was safe for higher speeds. Guilford appealed.

The court this week ruled that Guilford wasn’t harmed by the transportation board’s decision.

The court didn’t consider any of Guilford’s safety arguments, saying it lacked jurisdiction to review the board’s order because Guilford is not an aggrieved party.

AP-ES-04-23-04 0915EDT

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