Etihad Rail, formerly known as Union Railway, has suspended plans for a dedicated passenger link between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and will press on with freight lines instead.
The company's Dh40 billion (US$10.89bn) nationwide rail project is now scheduled to be 1,200km in length, built in three phases across all seven emirates between next year and 2019. This is a change from last year's plan, when it was expected to extend 1,500km, including a commuter line between the UAE's two largest metropolitan areas.
"When we talked about a 1,500km network, it did include the possibility of a direct route to Abu Dhabi and Dubai for passenger trains," said Richard Bowker, the chief executive of Etihad Rail. "Our priority at the moment is the mixed freight and passenger network. Maybe we will come back to it."
Even though the dedicated link is not yet going ahead, Etihad Rail eventually plans to include passenger services on its freight network, although the route will run through the desert rather than along the coast.
"By any measure what we are trying to achieve would be considered colossal," Mr Bowker said. "[Right now] it's all about priorities, it's all about focus."
Separately, Abu Dhabi's Department of Transport has been studying the feasibility of long-distance passenger rail services to other emirates, but a decision has yet to be made.
The nationwide network is designed to transport about 50 million tonnes of cargo and 16 million passengers.
The first line will be a 270km link to carry granulated sulphur between the Shah gasfield and the Ruwais industrial cluster for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, reflecting Etihad Rail's primary objective of transporting goods and heavy industrial products such as steel, concrete and petrochemicals.
That line will gradually be extended to Dubai and the Northern Emirates to link up ports, airports and manufacturing centres. While the railway system will be driven by diesel engines - the format selected for the planned GCC railway - there are contingency plans for Etihad Rail to transition to electrified trains later, officials said.
The railway is expected to significantly reduce emissions from lorries, as well as reducing road congestion and the need to build more motorways. It is estimated that one train can handle the freight load of 300 lorries.
Some 21 consortiums, representing up to 60 companies, are said to have pre-qualified for the first construction contract.
The first deal, as well as other awards for wagons and trains, should be concluded soon, Mr Bowker said. "All of those three contracts are out on the market, and it is our hope and intention that before summer we will be able to place all of those contracts."
Construction on the route linking Habshan with Ruwais will begin during the second half of next year and will be completed in early 2013, the company said. The extension to the Shah gasfield is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2014.