VALPARAISO | The $71.4 million Indiana Gateway at Porter Junction is one of the Federal Railroad Administration's top five priority high-speed rail projects, but work will not begin until there's a deal for fixing the Englewood crossing in Chicago, Administrator Joseph Szabo said.

"They are both critically important projects for both the fluidity of the freight network as well as the passenger network," Federal Railroad Administration's Szabo said Friday at the Golden Spike Seminar at Valparaiso University. "The Indiana Gateway going through Porter there is some of the most congested track in the nation from a freight standpoint, and virtually every passenger train that flows eastward out of Chicago has to go through there."

Amtrak, Norfolk Southern Corp. and the Illinois Department of Transportation are close to an agreement on building a flyover for Metra trains at Englewood and then the focus will be on Porter Junction, Szabo said.

Szabo, a former mayor of Riverdale, was the keynote speaker at the second day of the Golden Spike Seminar, which is hosted annually by the Indiana High Speed Rail Association to promote passenger rail development in the state.

The Englewood crossing project landed $133 million in money from the Obama administration's high-speed rail program early last year. Another $71.4 million was awarded to the Indiana Gateway project, which will involve building new sidings in the area of the Porter Junction as well as other improvements.

Altogether, tracks and stations used by Amtrak for Chicago-to-Michigan routes are getting $561 million in high-speed rail funds. With the help of the $196 million of that granted just last week, trains will be able to operate at 110 mph on the bulk of the route from Chicago to Detroit when all the projects are done. That will shave more than a half-hour off the trip.

Amtrak is focusing first on negotiations with railroad Norfolk Southern to cut down on delays at Chicago's Englewood crossing and then will move on to completing negotiations for improving Porter Junction, Amtrak spokesman Mark Magliari said.

Magliari spoke in the morning at the Golden Spike Seminar, where he touted 18 straight months of ridership increases on Amtrak and also talked about the Englewood and Porter Junction projects.

"The most recent meetings have been productive," Magliari said. "We need to get an Englewood deal done, and then we'll move down to Porter Junction and get a deal done there."

Construction work on Englewood will begin later this year and work on Porter Junction could begin later this year or next, Magliari said.

Up to 90 freight and 14 Amtrak trains per day pass through Porter Junction, a spider web of tracks on the border of Chesterton and the town of Porter. On a typical day at Englewood, 78 Metra trains, 46 Norfolk Southern trains and 14 Amtrak trains cross paths.

The largest part of the Englewood project is construction of a three-track flyover bridge to take the Metra Rock Island Line over the other tracks there, said Chuck Allen, of Chicago's CREATE program to relieve rail congestion.

At the Porter Junction, new sidings will cut down on wait times for both Amtrak and freight trains waiting to get through the crossing.

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