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Federal rail officials approved a $13.3 million grant Monday to help eliminate a major bottleneck along Amtrak's key Northeast Corridor line between Wilmington and Newark.

The grant clears the way to start early work this year on a third passenger track along a portion of the rail line between the two cities -- part of a multi-part, $52 million investment that will improve Amtrak, SEPTA and freight rail movements through the state.

Amtrak's mainline now narrows from three to two tracks roughly between Wilmington and Newport, regularly forcing commuter trains to slow or pause while intercity trains move through the bottleneck. It also complicates scheduling for freight and passenger trains.

Delaware's congressional delegation and state officials said the Federal Rail Administration decision would mean both jobs and improved rail service and reliability.

"As a near-daily rider of Amtrak, I know that adding a third rail will bring much-needed improvements to regular problem areas along Delaware's track, while also expanding and enhancing station facilities and customer convenience," Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said. He added that the project will help nationwide efforts to expand high-speed rail service and increase use of mass transit.

Planned work includes building 1.5 miles of new track near Wilmington, along with two new track-level crossovers and a bridge replacement that will improve Amtrak's on-time record for operations between Washington and Boston.

Because of the current bottleneck, Amtrak now restricts SEPTA commuter rail to nine round trips daily south of Wilmington to Churchmans Crossing and Newark, according to WILMAPCO, the region's transportation planning agency. DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt said his agency already is in the process of seeking bids for the project, with work set to start this fall.

Ken Potts, director of development for the Delaware Transit Corporation, said that federal agencies will contribute about $34 million for the work, while DelDOT will provide $12 million for the overall project and Amtrak about $5 million.

"Today's announcement affirms the state's ability to make significant right-of-way improvements to its portion of the northeast rail corridor," Bhatt said in a written statement.

The project also calls for construction of a new platform and pedestrian bridge at Churchmans Crossing, and development of a new connection near Newark for later use in building a new rail station and transit hub.

State officials have pointed to expanded rail facilities and other mass transit resources as crucial to future redevelopment of the former Chrysler assembly plant site into a major research, education and business hub. As many as 15,000 people eventually could work at the redeveloped site, officials have said in the past, creating an urgent need for highway alternatives.

The Northeast Corridor, which runs through Wilmington, is Amtrak's most heavily used, with 10 million passengers reported in 2010 and an expected 6 percent increase this year.

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