Motorway service area

Motorway service areas in the United Kingdom and Ireland, also known as 'service stations' or 'services', are places where drivers can leave a motorway to refuel/recharge, rest, eat and drink, shop or stay in an on-site overnight hotel. The vast majority of motorway services in the UK are owned by one of three companies: Moto, Welcome Break and Roadchef. Smaller operators include Extra, Westmorland and EuroGarages.

Norton Canes services on the M6 Toll motorway, Operated by Roadchef


Keele services on the M6 run by Welcome Break in 1996

The first two service areas in the UK - Watford Gap and Newport Pagnell, opened with temporary facilities when the M1 motorway was opened, on 2 November 1959. It is a common misconception that Watford Gap was the first service area to fully open, when in fact Newport Pagnell was first, on 15 August 1960, a month before Watford Gap. [1] Initially, most service areas were designed to be bold and attractive, with many opening viewing platforms and featuring fancy restaurants. The most famous example of a service area from this era is Lancaster, which features a 65ft tower which previously contained the main restaurant. However, it became apparent in the late 1960s that the costs of running a service area with such fancy amenities was unprofitable, so service areas began offering an increasingly basic service. High street brands were introduced to service areas in the 1990s, with most facilities eventually becoming franchises of well known brands.[2]

As more service stations opened, the number of operating companies increased, with sites ran by the Rank Organisation, Granada, Pavilion, Take a Break and Esso, among others. Through acquisitions and mergers, there are now only three major operators. In an attempt to break this oligopoly, in 2001, the government proposed allowing "mobile fast food vans" to operate at the areas,[3] though this idea never came to fruition.

Originally, service areas were government owned and leased to the operating companies. From 1992 onwards, new sites were planned and owned by private operators, and existing sites sold to them.[2]

In 2007 an AA survey concluded that service areas had improved in the previous three years, but cleanliness and pricing were still major issues.[4]

Opposition towards service areas has grown, with some planning applications being refused: some notable examples are Catherine-de-Barnes on the M42[5] and Kirby Hill on the A1(M),[6] both of which have had applications contested against. Despite concerns of local residents,[7] Beaconsfield on the M40 opened on 17 March 2009,[8] and Cobham services opened in September 2012.[9] Kirby Hill would eventually get approved for construction in April 2021.[10]

In 2017, Transport Focus began an annual review of service areas, with each site ranked on a league table. Reviews have taken place every year since. [11]

UK MSA OperatorsEdit

By Number of Locations:


De Lucht Rest Area on the Dutch A2. Many British MSAs at an on-line site have a layout similar to this one though on a larger scale.

Current government policy is that the interval between core motorway service areas should be no more than 28 miles or 30 minutes travelling time, whichever is the lesser.[12] A previous minimum separation of 12 miles[13] was removed in 2013. The current 28 miles is derived from 30 minutes driving time for an HGV limited to 56 mph and replaced the previous 30 miles in 2008.[13]

Initially service areas were located between junctions (on-line sites), having their own entry and exit slip roads. On-line sites usually have a separate site for each direction of travel, but e.g. Cobham services has a single site, accessed directly from the clockwise carriageway and via a tunnel from the anticlockwise carriageway of the M25.

In 1992, the system was changed so that the developer became responsible for choosing the site of a motorway service area, and consequently junction sites became the preferred option as they are cheaper to construct, as well as being accessible to traffic travelling in several directions. Following a public consultation in 2007/8, the Department for Transport/Highways Agency announced that new services should be located at on-line sites, unless a junction site is the only possibility.[13]

Two of the most recent openings, Wetherby (2008) and Beaconsfield (2009), are examples of junction sites: they are located at A1(M) junction 46, and M40 junction 2 respectively. However, more recently still, Cobham (2012) and Gloucester (2014) are on-line.

The siting of motorway service areas can be contentious, leading to protracted public inquiries, and often vociferous local campaigns against proposed schemes.[14]


The operating company must pay the full cost of constructing the entry and exit slip roads, signage, and all other features required for safe access to motorway services, as well as the motorway services facility itself. In other countries[where?], the authority responsible for the highway tends to subsidise these costs on the grounds that these areas are partly a public service to drivers. The leases provide that motorway services must operate 24 hours a day, and the costs of providing utilities and services are high.[15] With very few customers in the early morning, they need to earn the money in other ways.

Facilities and requirementsEdit

Government policy for motorway services has been set out in a succession of Department for Transport Circulars, the current version being 2013.[12] This sets out various facilities that must be provided in a new service station. Existing services that do not comply, because the requirements have changed, must achieve compliance as part of any significant refurbishment. These are enforced on operators either by the terms of their lease or by the need for the Highways Agency to agree to provide access to the motorway, and planning permission should be granted only for facilities that comply. The requirements include 24-hour, 365-day provision of:

  • Free parking for a minimum of 2 hours. Separate parking must be provided for motorcycles, cars, caravans (drive-through so as not to require reversing), coaches, HGVs, abnormal loads, and disabled parking. In each case the minimum number of spaces is set by a formula based on traffic flow.
  • Fuel.
  • Free toilets and hand-washing facilities with no obligation to make a purchase. The minimum number of toilets is specified by a similar formula to that for parking. Shower and toilet facilities are also required within the HGV parking area.
  • Baby-changing and breastfeeding facilities.
  • Free play area for children.
  • Hot drinks and hot food. Until 2013, the requirement was only for 24-hour snacks and hot drinks, plus hot substantial food from 6 am to 10 pm.[13]

A picnic area with a minimum of 10 tables each seating 6 people was required up to 2013,[13] and is still required in order for a picnic area to be advertised on signage.

The following restrictions also apply:

  • All traffic signing must comply with the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions that specify traffic signs for the rest of the road network.
  • Rear access, from the local road network, is either not provided at all, or is restricted to staff and deliveries and is physically segregated from the main service area.

Lodges for accommodation are permitted. Conference facilities or business centres and retail space are permitted; the size of each of these was limited, basically to 200 m2 and 500 m2 respectively, until 2013, but are now left to the planning system.

Originally, service areas were allowed to sell alcohol with food. Sale of alcohol was outlawed on service areas on government-owned land from 1961, permitted from 1998, banned for new sites from 2008, and permitted again from 2013.[16]

The government policy distinguishes "service areas" and "rest areas". There are 3 rest areas (Todhills, Leeming Bar, and Scotch Corner). All were existing facilities on trunk roads that were upgraded to motorways, and now, in fact, meet the requirements for service areas.[17] There is a further category of Truck Stop, serving HGVs only.


Ireland has four motorway service areas – initially the National Roads Authority opposed them on the grounds that it preferred to see traffic using existing businesses in bypassed towns, and that the motorway network was not large enough for them anyway.[18] However, in 2006 it changed its mind, and the Roads Act 2007 makes provision for a Motorway Service Area Scheme to be made for proposed motorway service areas. The NRA held a competition to determine an operator for the first round of service areas to be opened.[19] Superstop, a consortium consisting of Petrogas (Applegreen) and Tedcastles Oil Products (TOP), won the contract.[20] The first service area, Lusk services, opened on the M1 on 8 September 2010. Castlebellingham services (also on the M1) opened on 29 September 2010, with Enfield services on the M4 opening shortly after in late 2010. The fourth service area, Wicklow services station (J14, M11) opened on 29 May 2014. While other locations for service areas were planned by the NRA, they are unlikely to proceed in the short term due to the economic recession. "No services on motorway" signs have been erected on the M7, M8, and M9. The NRA has stated that it now intends to erect signs to petrol stations off the motorway instead.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The Original Five". Motorway Services Online. Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  2. ^ a b "How to Design a Service Station". Motorway Service Online. Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  3. ^ Bamber, David (19 June 2001). "Burger vans to sell fast food at M-way services". The Daily Telegraph. London. p. 1. Retrieved 5 May 2009.
  4. ^ "Public Affairs : UK motorway service areas improve but at a price". The AA. 11 July 2007. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
  5. ^ "Catney Residents Association – Motorway Service Area". Archived from the original on 28 March 2009. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
  6. ^ "". Retrieved 23 March 2009.
  7. ^ "New MSA could bring Handy Cross-style traffic chaos in Beaconsfield". 12 November 2006. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
  8. ^ "Beaconsfield Motorway Service Area to open tomorrow". 16 March 2009. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
  9. ^ "Cobham M25 service station opened". BBC News. 13 September 2012. Retrieved 13 September 2012.
  10. ^ "Campaign group outraged as planning inspector approves Kirby Hill motorway service station near Boroughbridge after 14-day public inquiry". Yorkshire Post. 14 April 2021. Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  11. ^ "Motorway Services User Survey 2020". Transport Focus. 30 June 2020. Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  12. ^ a b "The Strategic Road Network and the Delivery of Sustainable Development". Department for Transport Circular 02/2013, 10 September 2013. Available at "
  13. ^ a b c d e Policy on Service Areas and Other Roadside Facilities On Motorways and All-Purpose Trunk Roads in England Archived 22 November 2010 at the Wayback Machine – the Department for Transport
  14. ^ Mcclymont, Katie; O'Hare, Paul (1 June 2008). ""We're not NIMBYs!" Contrasting local protest groups with idealised conceptions of sustainable communities" (PDF). Local Environment. 13 (4): 321–335. doi:10.1080/13549830701803273. ISSN 1354-9839. S2CID 143704483.
  15. ^ "Why the Prices?". Motorway Services Online. Retrieved 22 March 2009.
  16. ^ "Alcohol at motorway services". Motorway Services Online. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  17. ^ "Rest area – motorway services". Motorway Services Online. Retrieved 16 November 2019.
  18. ^ "Cullen in call to NRA on service stations". RTÉ News. 15 June 2005.
  19. ^ "News Announcements – National Roads Authority". Retrieved 23 March 2009.
  20. ^,16697,en.html

External linksEdit