Motorway Services Online

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Motorway service area

This is about motorway services in general. For the operator Motorway Services Ltd, see Trusthouse Forte.

A motorway service area is any state-approved facility designed to rest drivers who are using the motorway network. They are run entirely by private operators but regulated by the Department for Transport through Circular 01/2008 (in England only, though similar policies apply across the UK). They are either infill, core or reserve, and online or offline.

This whole website is all about them.


An early motorway service area.


Any facility designed to serve travellers could claim to have had an influence on the motorway service area, but the closest relative is the coaching inn, which set up at the crossings of major routes to rest horses and their owners. They were usually located every few miles and offered food, accommodation and stables.

Motorway Era

Full details: The Original Five

One of the benefits of motorways is that local businesses are not allowed to set up alongside, making the road faster and safer. When the M1 was being designed, concerns were raised that people wouldn't be using the road because they liked the security of having somewhere to stop. A rushed survey was sent out to gauge the level of interest in a small number of commercial facilities being provided along the road.

Two very different services opened with the M1 in 1959: Blue Boar's rudimentary Watford Gap and Motorway Services Ltd's exquisite Newport Pagnell. There was no time to assess the benefits of these, so the format was simply copied across the motorway network.

Throughout the early design period, MSAs were always referred to as service areas (SAs). It's thought the term 'motorway services' developed from the name 'Motorway Services Ltd'.


Full details: MSA Policy

When motorway services were first proposed, it was assumed their main function would be to help rescue broken vehicles. Finding a company who were skilled in this, selling fuel and running a restaurant was difficult, and the breakdown service was frequently cut-off by competitors. It was formally cancelled in 1977, with services focussing on fuel, catering and now motels instead.

Selection and Ownership

A sign explaining a new service area is being developed privately.

Originally, the government would identify suitable sites for motorway services as one of the last stages of motorway design. Interested firms would then bid for a contract to build and operate the services, with one aspect of their tender being a combined fixed and percentage-based rent payment.

Following complaints from operators, in the 1980s the land most services were built on was sold to the operator, and the rent agreements reviewed. The Department for Transport went on to accept operators' proposals for new services. Since 1992, developers and operators have become solely responsible for identifying, purchasing the land and winning planning permission for new services.

Problems with Definition

The original policy of having the government own the land motorway services were built on, and having them dedicated for such a purpose, meant it was very clear whether something was a motorway service area or not. Since the first motorways opened enterprising landowners have built hotels and petrol stations next to motorway junctions but these clearly didn't meet the definition.

Now the land is privately owned, the definition of a service area is that there must be a signing agreement in place between the highway authority and the landowner. This causes a problem for enthusiasts because, in the UK, road signs are very inconsistent. Sometimes small petrol stations will be told they don't qualify, sometimes they will be told they can have signs because there are no services nearby, sometimes they'll ask for signs and get them even though they clearly don't qualify and sometimes they'll get signs even when they didn't ask. That's not to mention the cases where different signs to normal have been used, such as replacing services with "hotel", "local facilities" or "rest area".

To the casual road user, everything is amicable. To enthusiasts, trying to count how many services is impossible because there are too many jokers in the pack. However to highway authorities and landowners, it creates a constant battle over what does and doesn't qualify.


Motorway services must provide the following facilities 24 hours a day:

  • Two hours free parking
  • Free toilets and baby-changing facilities
  • A free picnic and children's play area
  • Fuel
  • Snacks and hot drinks
  • Access for those carrying out duties on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport

They are usually located at 30-mile intervals.

Road Signs

Road signs are dealt with in detail on the Motorway Signs page.