It’s a cold and dark night. A team of Network Rail and contractor track workers assembled at the access point and then trudged a mile and a half, on uneven ballast and avoiding the slippery sleepers, to this work site in a damp cutting.

That was well over an hour ago. Now, to warm chilled bodies and revive flagging spirits, it’s time for a cup of tea.

But the kettle is a mile and a half away. That’s over an hour of down time, and time is something this overnight possession just doesn’t have.

So forget the tea – everyone must just carry on and forget how cold and weary they are.

One lump or two?

It’s a familiar scenario. One that’s not good for staff morale, or safety, or efficiency.

But now, thanks to David Sowter, senior HSEQ advisor for Amey, that’s all in the past. Now, workers can take a short break and visit the tea trolley.

A tea trolley? On a track renewals site? Yes, because David has developed the world’s first Safe-Tea Trolley – a self-contained refreshments unit for railway workers.

The Safe-Tea Trolley was developed after the Track Safety Alliance (TSA) set out the challenge to find a way of getting a hot drink to those working out on the track, one mile from an access point. David took up the challenge and approached AJC, a company that makes bespoke trailers and cabins.

The trolley is a small unit that can be safely lifted by two workers and latched onto a standard track trolley, which means it can be transported along the tracks to wherever workers are based. The unit provides staff with the ability to make hot and cold drinks and also has a small amount of storage so workers can mix up certain hot snacks, such as pot noodles.

Funded by Amey, the trolley was approved by Network Rail after one of its quickest-ever acceptance procedures.

Lee Jones, operations director for rail and metro at Amey, was surprised it hadn’t been done before: “Having a cup of tea is something that many of us take for granted in the workplace, and yet it makes an important difference to wellbeing. Looking after our people is something that we’re serious about so investing in new ideas that enhance wellbeing in the workplace, like David’s tea trolley, is a no-brainer for us.”

David and AJC innovatively designed the trolley with its own water supply and generator, as well as an environmentally friendly LED lighting system to ensure that the unit was self-contained, with provisions that would last the length of a shift. They also designed the unit to be moved in a safe manner, minimising any risks involved with lifting.


The Safe-Tea Trolley can also be personalised depending on requirements, with items such as defibrillators and noticeboards being added to the original design.


David Sowter told Rail Engineer how he came up with the idea: “Having worked in the rail industry for 35 years, I know that the track can be a challenging place to work, and developing kit like the Safe-Tea Trolley is all about finding ways to overcome these challenges safely.

“The trolley has received some great feedback from the industry and I hope that it will make a real difference to the wellbeing of our frontline teams.”

The prototype was trialled by staff at Grange Sidings, Stoke-on-Trent, and discussed at the April 2015 TSA forum. The resulting feedback was used to help refine the design. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to it by workers, with some saying that it could make the difference between a shift being bearable or unbearable.

And it’s not just the workers themselves who are impressed. Steve Featherstone, track programme director for Network Rail, added his comments: “We often forget when we are in warm, dry offices or signal boxes that the orange army works in all weathers to keep the railway working properly. And when you are part way through a shift it is important to have a hot drink to reduce the risk of fatigue. Feedback has been fantastic and it’s great to have ideas like this developed – by the frontline, for the frontline.”

Interestingly, it’s not David’s first good idea to improve the lot of track workers. He has previously created a state of the art, self-contained welfare cabin. This larger cabin could be transported to trackside sites to provide workers with access to toilets, the ability to prepare hot and cold drinks and food, and an area where they shelter from poor weather.

The cabin also has space in which to transport equipment, carries its own water supply and it’s fitted with both a generator and an LED lighting system. This eliminated the need for external generators, portaloos or lighting and therefore created the added benefit of reducing the risk of theft and vandalism as well as disturbance to any nearby residents from noise and fumes.

Well done David – again!