If state rail company Union Railway can complete the first phase of its $11bn rail network within the ambitious timeframe it has set for itself, the company will have set the standard not only for the UAE railway, but also the planners behind the GCC’s five other rail projects.

Union Railway this week told contractors that the tendering process on the first phase of the UAE-wide rail network will start within the next two months, turning an idea first announced in 2009 into a reality.

All six Gulf countries have plans to build their own national railways, which will eventually combine to form the 2,177-kilometre GCC network.

The focus on the 264km phase one of the UAE’s railway is on the transportation of granulated sulphur between the southern Shah gas field, another field, Habshan, and on to Ruwais on the Gulf coast.

By incorporating industrial projects into the scheme, Union Railway has set a template for the regional development of rail projects. The line supports state energy giant Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s ongoing production programmes at Shah and Habshan oil and gas fields, and later phases will contribute significantly to the development of the oil, natural gas and petrochemical industries in the UAE.

With this anchor in place, the rail network will grow to encompass 100 locomotives and 5,000 freight wagons by 2017, transporting cargo and people in equal measures.

Time is of the essence, however: Union Railway will ask for expressions of interest on construction contracts by the end of May, and it expects to invite firms to prequalify for the project in the third quarter of the year. The completion date of the first phase is 2013.

None of the UAE’s neighbours have reached such an advanced phase on any of their rail projects, and if Union Rail is successful it will set the bar for regional rail development.