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Delaware has emerged as a front-runner in Amtrak's search for a new heavy maintenance center to service its fastest trains as the national carrier expands its high-speed rail networks.

State economic development officials said Friday they will propose a $500,000 contribution to a rail company feasibility study focused on the heavy locomotive maintenance yards at Wilmington or another suitable spot in northern Delaware.

Amtrak would match the state outlay, slated to come to a vote by the Council on Economic Development Finance on Sept. 26.

The center could eventually create 100 or more new jobs in the state, while also protecting Delaware's current passenger rail maintenance workforce.

"We basically asked the question: 'What is it we can do to get more business in Delaware repairing these cars and the like?' " Gov. Jack Markell said late Friday. "It's been a long conversation; there's not a commitment, but we believe that it's worthwhile to take this next step, to do a feasibility study."

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a former Amtrak board member, said he had been encouraging Amtrak for years to consider Delaware as a maintenance center for its newest trains, despite a setback several years ago when the state missed a chance to handle Acela locomotives.

"You don't always get a second chance in life. In this case, we're going to get a second shot at this business," Carper said.

"Amtrak is now focused on doing this work on a preliminary basis in the current shops, with an open mind toward them making a significant investment in a new shop, and a fairly large shop, in Wilmington," Carper said.

Christina Leeds, media relations manager with Amtrak government affairs and corporate communications office in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the company planned to conduct a study with the Delaware Economic Development Office on a high-speed train maintenance site.

Delaware Economic Development Office Director Alan Levin said Amtrak had explored other locations, but is now concentrating on Delaware, where it has operations in Wilmington and Bear.

"Based on our workforce, based on our central location within the Northeast, it makes sense to them as a potential site," Levin said. "They also own land as well in Delaware that could accommodate this facility."

Studies could take a year, however.

"There's more to it than just saying, 'We want to be here,' " Levin said. "They need to explore the location, what's underneath the ground, whether the site is proper and whether they can have track beds go to the site, how to get to the facility itself."

Carper said local unions contacted about the new maintenance center were able to reach unanimous agreement on provisions that would allow workers to handle more than one type of job in some cases -- a stumbling block that derailed the previous bid for the site.

"I think that it's gone from a gleam in somebody's eye to a real possibility," Carper said. He said he hopes Wilmington's shops can eventually become a regional maintenance hub for other transit rail systems as well. "It can still be derailed, but I think the chances of this actually happening are continuing to improve."

More than 400 people work at Amtrak's Bear yard off U.S. 40, a site that received $58.5 million from the federal economic stimulus program in 2009 to refurbish aging or damaged passenger cars. About 500 work in the Wilmington locomotive maintenance shops.

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