WASHINGTON (AP) _ Amtrak pitched its New York-to-Boston improvement project Wednesday as a model for the nation amid congressional grousing that the passenger railroad favors the Northeast.

Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. told a House transportation panel that some $1.2 billion in planned improvements in the Northeast Corridor will guide the development of high-speed rail service nationwide.

''This project, perhaps more than anything else that we are currently doing, will help define the role Amtrak will play in the coming years in the national transportation system,'' Claytor told the House subcommittee on transportation and hazardous material.

Amtrak hopes to reduce travel time between New York and Boston from nearly five hours to just under three.

If the predictions of increased profit along that route come true, Amtrak says, similar modernization programs could be undertaken between San Diego and Los Angeles and between Portland Ore., and Vancouver, Canada.

Claytor's assertions come at a critical time for Amtrak. The House and Senate appropriations committees have already agreed to spend $205 million in the coming year to begin the project. But the House and Senate committees that govern transportation also have a say.

While congressional support is considered likely, it is not yet a certainty. And Western lawmakers said Wednesday they hoped their cities would not be ignored.

''It seems that most of the projects being considered are Eastern,'' said Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M. ''Congestion also exists in the Southwest.''

Richardson wants to build a high-speed line through the Rio Grande Valley.

Claytor estimated it would take five years and $800 million to improve track conditions and switches and complete the electrification of the corridor between New Haven, Conn., and Boston. Amtrak also plans to buy about $400 million in new locomotives and passenger cars.