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Why are our motorway service stations so awful?


From overpriced food to strict limits on parking times, there are many reasons motorway services get on our nerves.

M25 services sign

Are Britain’s service stations a source of national shame?

That seems to be the conclusion drawn by a new survey of motorists.

'As little time and money as possible'

A study carried out by the RAC has found that almost nine in 10 motorway users think our service stations offer poor value for money while a majority describe visiting services as "not a pleasurable experience".

This follows the RAC’s recent findings that drivers are calling for curbs on the prices charged by motorway services for petrol and diesel.

The organisation’s new research found that the average expenditure at services was between £5 and £10 per person, with 71% of respondents saying they tried to spend as little time and money there as possible.

RAC head of external affairs Pete Williams says: "Millions of motorists depend on motorway service areas for a well-earned rest.

"It is important for their safety and that of other road users that they take regular breaks so they are not tired when behind the wheel.

Strict parking limits

"But motorists feel they are being seriously let down by what they see as overpriced products and a lack of good service to match those premium prices."

Williams adds: "For a family of four to eat a quick, relatively basic meal together, the bill can easily pass the £40 mark, and even then, motorists tell us that the food on offer in some cases just doesn’t meet the mark."

The RAC found that respondents were particularly unhappy with the fact that many service stations imposed strict time limits on parking.

More than eight in 10 said services should allow free long-stay or overnight parking so that drivers could rest adequately.

Unhappy customers

Traffic on UK motorway

A number of readers were also critical of Britain’s service stations following our recent report on high motorway fuel prices.

One commenter, Michael, says: "Personally I think the whole standard of service stations in the UK is appalling.

"I travel daily from Manchester to the West Midlands and they are all dirty, overpriced and past their sell-by date."

Another commenter, Mark, adds: "Everything about motorway services is designed for the extraction of the maximum amount of money from the users, not for their convenience and safety.

A better way

"If they were concerned about the safety of the driver, they would not have a parking time limit of two hours.

"On the Continent, they expect you to stop and sleep if you start to feel tired. Here, they expect you to stop, spend your money and then bugger off."

Williams at the RAC says that a good example has been set by the independent firm Westmorland Family, which has run the Tebay services on the M6 in Cumbria for several decades.

He adds: "They have taken a very different approach, sourcing good quality ingredients from the local area, producing home-cooked food which many consider to provide better value for money, as well as being a better quality and possibly healthier option."

'Food is the key'

Sarah Dunning, Westmorland Family’s CEO, says "proper food" is the company’s USP.

Westmorland has this year opened a second service station on the M5 near Gloucester

"We have a great deal of repeat custom — and visitors to both Gloucester and Tebay are effusive in their praise, and that really helps to galvanise and inspire our staff to deliver both quality and service," Dunning says.

But she adds that the process of taking over a service station can be fraught with red tape.

"It was a very long journey to open Gloucester Services, resulting in a judicial review."

Perhaps this obstacle to competition is a reason why other operators can get away with failing to meet customers’ expectations.


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