The railway will utilise a fleet of seven SD70ACS locomotives supplied by EMD and 240 covered hopper wagons from CSR to carry sulphur from the region to the port at Ruwais on the Persian Gulf coast for export.

The project is the first phase of the United Arab Emirates' railway network and is being financed by a $US 1.28bn five-year loan. The second phase will run from the Saudi Arabian border to Al Ain, and Mr John Lesniewski, Etihad Rail sales director, told Middle East Rail 2013, which was held this week in Dubai, that tenders for its construction are close to being awarded.

"We expect construction to start between now and the summer," he says. "We plan to connect it to the GCC by 2018."

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Kuwaiti officials say they are in the process of hiring consultants for its section of the 2000km GCC network, while Omani officials say they could miss a 2018 deadline for the development their section. Mr Abdulrahman Al Hatmi, director of Oman National Railway, says he hopes the first contract for the proposed 170km line will be awarded by the end of the year, adding that the Omani section of the GCC network is considered the most expensive per-kilometre because of mountainous terrain. He says it could cost more than $US 3bn to build.

"The prequalification for the design and build will be announced by the end of March," Al Hatmi says. "Hopefully we will launch the tender in August and after we qualify, we will invite the shortlisted to start bidding."

Al Hatmi says the Omani government is considering entering the debt market for the project either by the end of the year, or when the contract is about to be awarded, and admits this could add time to the project.

"If you want to close a financing deal, it takes time to do that," he says.