The 207km first phase will link the port of Sohar with Buraimi on the UAE border, with work due for completion by the end of 2018.

The project is being divided into three packages with the 18 pre-qualified bidders expected to work with five short-listed consortia for the systems contract. The five consortia are led by Alstom, Ansaldo STS, Bombardier, Siemens and Thales. Oman Rail also stipulates that 10% of the value of each contract must go to Omani companies under an in-country value (ICV) development initiative which aims to develop Oman's economy in new sectors.

Oman Rail says it intends to name the short-listed bidders for the contract on March 1 and an announcement on further tenders for additional phases of the 2244km network is expected later this year.

The double-track Sohar – Buraimi line will be built to accommodate 32.4 tonne axleloads, ERTMS Level 2 and double-stack intermodal trains. While diesel traction will initially be employed, the line will be designed for future electrification.

The first phase will include 5km of tunnels and 70 bridges, and the line will have steep gradients in places, as identified in a design study conducted by Italian State Railways (FS) subsidiary, Italferr.

Oman Rail CEO Mr Abdulrahman Al-Hatmi is optimistic that the project can be completed on schedule and he says the government is fully committed to the scheme despite the recent decline in oil prices.

"We are going to change the life of almost anyone who has anything to do with Oman," Al-Hatmi said. "We will make everything you buy and sell in the supermarket cheaper. In terms of natural resources, we will even make building a house cheaper. This is why we are reorganising and revolutionising the logistical supply chain in Oman."