UK Motorway Service Areas Improve

But at a price

11 July 2007

UK motorway service areas, the worst in Europe three years ago, are showing signs of turning the corner on quality, an AA survey reveals. They offer some of the best motorway shopping facilities in Europe, but it is a lottery as to whether travellers will pay a fair price or be stung.

However, like much of Europe, even if parents can find nappies in the main building, it is hit and miss whether the baby-changing facilities are clean enough to use: one in four hygiene tests in the UK revealed a potential health risk. The level of cleanliness in restaurants can also leave much to be desired.

picture of norton canes service area The Eurotest, conducted by catering experts and a public health laboratory1, found that, overall, the quality of the UK motorway service areas tested this year was better than in 2004. Five out of six sites (Fleet, Magor, Cardiff West, Norton Canes, and Clacket Lane) were rated as acceptable compared to two out of seven in the previous test. Some of the service areas tested this year were old sites with the oldest, Toddington on the M1, the only one to be rated poor - although its extensive refurbishment should raise it to acceptable standard. In 2004, one service area was rated very poor, with five others rated poor.

The inspectors visited each site on two consecutive days, looking to buy a set small meal at the cheapest price and a basket of basic snacks also at the cheapest price. Prices in the restaurants of the six sites varied by 21.5 per cent compared to a European average difference of 39.8 per cent, indicating a lower level of competitiveness.

However, in the shops, the cost of a cola, bottle of water, sandwich and toothbrush varied by 110 per cent among the service areas, compared to an average of 55.7 per cent on the Continent. The problem is that UK travellers have no way of telling which service areas are offering better value for money until they have pulled in.

Hygiene, particularly in baby-changing areas, is a lottery, even for service areas with thorough cleaning routines. One UK site's baby-changing area scored amongst the highest in the first test but recorded the worst result of the six sites the following day – the quantity of pathogenic agents found deemed to be a hazard. As is the case with the sanitation in other public facilities, the personal hygiene practices of customers as much as the frequency and effectiveness of cleaning decides health safety. However, only Norton Canes was found to provide tear-off paper roll to lay over the changing surface.

"Most service areas clearly have effective cleaning and hygiene regimes. However, when the room was last cleaned and who has used it since can turn nappy-changing into Russian roulette for the parent that doesn't take adequate hygiene precautions, as is the case in any public place," says Paul Watters, head of AA Public Affairs, a leading partner in the Eurotest consortium. "Service area operators have to accept that the hygiene standards of many customers are bad, and set their cleaning practices at that level, increasing the rounds at peak times."

Medenbach East services on the A3 in Germany - best rated site in 2007 "The survey showed little difference in price across the UK for even the most basic of restaurant food, the quality of which was usually little more than acceptable. Yet, the expansion of shopping facilities in service areas not only offers visitors more choice but also competitive pricing for snacks and essentials. It should be the envy of the rest of Europe, except that there is no way of telling from the road whether a service area offers better value for money than one further down the motorway."

Compared to the rest of Europe, UK motorway service areas were on a par with those in Belgium and Denmark, and considerably better than those in Italy – the only country in the pan-European survey with a "very poor" service area, and four out of their remaining six rated poor.

As well as the range of shops, UK motorway service areas were praised for:

  • layout of parking, disabled parking spaces and pedestrian walkways. Fleet Services (M3), Clacket Lane (M25) and Toddington (M1), were noted for prominent CCTV;
  • the friendliness and helpfulness of staff, as well as information provided either by staff or electronically.

However, the inspectors gave UK motorway service areas the thumbs down for:

  • poor cleanliness outside, in the restaurants and toilet areas;
  • catering that is better than three years ago but still uninspiring;
  • family activity areas, although dog facilities were a highlight.

Across Europe, the inspectors noted persistent deficiencies with motorway service areas. Family-friendly features were often lacking and essential supplies of nappies and fresh fruit were hard to find. In some service areas, inspectors had to run the gauntlet of traffic to walk across car parks and roads to get nappies from the petrol stations.

Watters concludes: "UK motorway service areas are investing millions of pounds to improve their sites and it is clear from this survey that this is being reflected in the quality and variety on offer. However, attention to the basics, such as cleanliness, is just as important and this report highlights the challenge that operators face manning and servicing a 24/7 operation."

Notes to Editors

Download a full copy of the report in pdf (you will need Adobe Acrobat). The full report includes a table showing results across Europe.

1Motorway service area inspections were conducted by experts from Swiss Gastro Consulting, Boblingen, Germany, a firm of hotel specialists and quality inspectors in the hotel and catering trade. The hygiene tests involved agar plates being pressed to surfaces, samples were chilled and then sent to a public health laboratory, Synlab Augsburg in Germany, within 72 hours.

UK motorway service areas and results:


Fleet (M3),
Road safety and parking – acceptable
Outdoor facilities – very poor
Access/indoor facilities – very poor
Catering – acceptable
Shop/kiosk – very good
Service – good
Family friendliness – very poor
Hygiene – good
Prices – poor
Overall – acceptable

Magor (M4)
Road safety and parking – very good
Outdoor facilities – very poor
Access/indoor facilities – poor
Catering – good
Shop/kiosk – good
Service – good
Family friendliness – acceptable
Hygiene – poor
Prices – poor
Overall – acceptable

Cardiff West (M4)
Road safety and parking – good
Outdoor facilities – acceptable
Access/indoor facilities – acceptable
Catering – poor
Shop/kiosk – very good
Service – good
Family friendliness – good
Hygiene – very poor
Prices – very poor
Overall – acceptable

Norton Canes (M6 toll road)
Road safety and parking – very good
Outdoor facilities – acceptable
Access/indoor facilities – good
Catering – acceptable
Shop/kiosk – very good
Service – very good
Family friendliness – very poor
Hygiene – very good
Prices – very poor
Overall – acceptable

Clacket Lane (M25)
Road safety and parking – good
Outdoor facilities – acceptable
Access/indoor facilities – acceptable
Catering – acceptable
Shop/kiosk – very good
Service – good
Family friendliness – acceptable
Hygiene – acceptable
Prices – very poor
Overall – acceptable

Toddington (M1)
Road safety and parking – acceptable
Outdoor facilities – very poor
Access/indoor facilities – good
Catering – acceptable
Shop/kiosk – very good
Service – poor
Family friendliness – very poor
Hygiene – acceptable
Prices – acceptable
Overall – poor

Price comparison across Europe

Key: Most expensive (cheapest) % difference
Small meal: water (0.3 ltr container), cappuccino, meat/poultry dish, small salad
Snacks: cola (0.5 ltr container), water (1 ltr container), sandwich, toothbrush

UK
Small meal 24.69 (20.32) 21.5%
Snacks 12.68 (6.03) 110.3%

Austria
Small meal 17.80 (13.60) 30.9%
Snacks 10.80 (6.58) 64.1%

Switzerland
Small meal 20.77 (14.92) 39.2%
Snacks 12.00 (7.25) 65.5%

Germany
Small meal 15.75 (11.60) 35.8%
Snacks 8.32 (5.59) 48.8%

Belgium
Small meal 17.25 (13.75) 25.5%
Snacks 11.69 (8.18) 42.9%

Denmark
Small meal 17.89 (13.36) 33.9%
Snacks 15.55 (10.09) 54.1%

France
Small meal 17.30 (12.20) 41.8%
Snacks 10.45 (8.10) 29.0%

Italy
Small meal 14.45 (9.50) 52.1%
Snacks 11.75 (8.50) 38.2%

Spain
Small meal 19.90 (11.20) 77.7%
Snacks 12.04 (8.10) 48.6%

Average % price difference
Small meal 39.8%
Snacks: 55.7%

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11 July 2007