The Best and Worst Motorway Services in the UK

Best & Worst Motorway Services

Motorway service areas are places where motorists can refuel, rest or eat and drink. Located along the motorway or at a motorway junction, service areas are also known as service stations or rest stops. In addition to restrooms, parking areas, fuel, and food and drink establishments, services at a rest stop may include a variety of additional amenities. Amenities and services may include bank machines, picnic areas, shops, video game areas, and hotels. The quality of services and amenities offered at service areas often varies depending on the amenities and services offered and the facility's operator, as well as the location and age of the facility.

Motorway Services Operators

The first service area in the United Kingdom opened along the M1 motorway at Watford Gap in 1959. Service areas were originally located between motorway junctions with access provided via dedicated entry and exit road slips. In recent years, motorway service areas have also been built at junction areas. Motorway services must provide free short-term parking, complimentary 24-hour toilet facilities, and the adequate 24-hour provision of food and fuel. Since operators are often required to pay for the construction of any access slips in addition to the facility itself, food and fuel costs at service areas are often significantly higher than in other areas.

The majority of motorway service areas are owned and operated by Moto, Welcome Break and Road Chef. Additional operators of motorway service areas include Extra, Westmorland, Stop24, Euro Garages, BP Connect, and Cairn Lodge. Only 20 motorway service areas are owned by the Department of Transport, with the remaining services owned exclusively by operators. Facilities owned by the Department of Transport are let to private operating companies on 50 year leases. Moto is the UK's largest operator with 30 service areas, followed by Welcome Break with 26, Road Chef with 20, and Extra with 8.

Motorway Service Area Ratings

The Motorway Services Awards recognises the best motorway service areas in the UK. The best rest stops are awarded a five burger ranking. Rankings are based on ratings provided by service area users for a full calendar year. In order to be eligibly for annual rankings, services must be open for at least a full year. In 2012, Moto was ranked as the best large operator among the major three services operators (Moto, Welcome Break and Road Chef), although with a ranking of just two out of five burgers. Among small operators, Westmorland was ranked on top with an overall rating of four out of five. Moto and Westmorland were also ranked as the top operators in 2011.

In 2012, the best service area with the sole five burger ranking was the Stafford Services Northbound situated on the M6. Service areas with a burger rating of four out of five were Southwaite Services, Burton-in-Kendal Services, Tebay Services Northbound and Tebay Services Southbound along the M6, and Cherwell Valley Services on the M40. In 2011, Cherwell Valley Services on the M4 was recognised as the best service area with the lone five burger rating. Services with a four out of five rating in 2011 included Thurrock Services on the M25, M23's Pease Pottage Services, and Birch Services on the M62. Common reasons for strong ratings included a variety of food choices and amenities, friendly and courteous staff, and cleanliness of the service area.

The Motorway Services Awards also rank the worst UK motorway service areas. In 2012, six service areas were rated with a zero out of five burgers. The worst service areas included Sandbach Services, Hilton Park Services and Lancaster (Forton) Services on the M6. Watford Gap Services and Northampton Services on the M1 and Stirling Services on the M9 were also among the worst motorway service areas in the UK.

The Highways Agency has also honoured the best service area in the UK. In 2012, the agency ranked Tebay Services as Britain's best motorway services. Positioned along the M6 in Cumbria, the Westmorland-operated services was the first to be awarded five stars based on a survey by the Highways Agency and VisitEngland. The stunning facility was built using Cumbrian stone and dark wood beams. The 24-hour services offers a variety amenities, including a farm shop with local produce, a restaurant with homemade food on its menu, an outdoor grill shack with local meat, and organic beer from a local brewery. Tebay was also voted the best motorway service area by Which? Magazine in 2006 and won the Grand Prix of gastronomy from Egon Ronay in 2009.