Al Futaisi said that the systems contractor will act as a subcontractor to a design and build contractor, with both having to submit one combined bid. He says that if the prequalification tender proceeds as expected, he anticipates awarding the 171km Sohar - Buraimi construction contract by the end of the year, and civil works to commence on Oman's first railway project in the first quarter of 2015. The prequalification tender will be valid for four years, with any prequalified contractor able to bid for subsequent railway contracts.

"When we float the other segments, say from Buraimi to Ibri, to Sinaw to Duqm, and so on, we will not do another prequalification," Al Futaisi says. "The same prequalified parties will be able to bid for the next segments, unless four years lapse at which point we will announce a further prequalification."

Al Futaisi's comments conflict with the director of Oman National Railway, Mr Abdulrahman Al Hatmi's, views expressed earlier this week that he expects prequalification tender to be issued "by the end of March."

The government confirmed in its 2014 state budget that Rials 1bn ($US 2.6bn) has been earmarked for the country's railway project in the initial phases of its development, and Al Futais made the prequalification announcement during a contract signing for three consultancy agreements relating to design of the country's proposed 2244km railway network and the development of Omani Railway Company.

Italferr will conduct preliminary design of the entire network under a contract worth Rials 13.6m. The Italian firm secured a letter of intent for the contract win last August, beating off competition from DB International and National Engineering Office, Oman. Under the second Rials 293,000 contract, Abu Taman Grant will provide consultancy services to develop the organisational structure of the Omani Railway Company, while the third contract relates to developing brand identity and trademark for Omani Railway Company, and was agreed with Dar al Takwwn Advertising Agency in a Rials 92,500 deal.

Al Futaisi says that field works including geographic and geological surveys for the project have already begun, while the design contract includes a training programme for Omani engineers.

"The consultant will train 10 Omani university graduates who will travel to Rome next month to receive the required training which will enable them to become railway engineers," Al Futaisi says. "A special programme is in place to establish them as the nucleus of Omani Railway Company."

Al Futaisi added that the results of a tender to select the project management consultant are still under consideration, with five bidding consortiums led by Parsons-Brinckerhoff, Tecnicas Reunidas, Spain, Hill International, United States, Dohwa Engineering, Korea, and Parsons International, awaiting the results.

"They had some comments with regard to the evaluation of the offers and we are replying to them," Al Futaisi says. "We are hoping that it will happen shortly. A reward is now required because the project management consultant will review the preliminary designs. It's clear that [Italferr] is moving very fast and is already submitting to us the drawings for the first segment. We need the project manager to review them so we hope this announcement will come very soon."