Motorway Services Online

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Road: M4 at J20
M5 at J15
Location: Almondsbury, South Gloucestershire
Date planned: 1960
Operator: Motorway Services Ltd (Fortes & Blue Star)
Grid reference: ST614839 (SABRE Maps)

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Almondsbury services was not a serious proposal which was never likely to see the light of day, but it was still interesting for a number of reasons.

During the planning of the interchange between the M4 and M5 motorways, Motorway Services Ltd (a joint company formed by Fortes and Blue Star who ran Newport Pagnell) contacted the Ministry to explain they were about to acquire land in the corner of the junction, and that they were expecting a service area they would build there to be included in the new junction layout.

They were told no. At best, they could apply for permission to link this hypothetical service area to the nearby A38 and rely on passing trade, but that was all they would get.

In the event, Motorway Services Ltd lost enthusiasm for building services so the Ministry were able to get their way without issue.

The Problems

The suggestion was quite ridiculous for a number of reasons:

  • The interchange between the M4 and the M5 was always going to be a complicated set-up. Building a service area would have required eight additional sliproads, mostly lengthy flyovers, to be included in the plan, pushing costs up dramatically, as well as making it confusing to navigate.
  • What made motorways (which were new at the time) different to other roads was that exits would only be provided for other roads, or for land owned by the Ministry. Fortes were asking to be an exception and have several exits provided for their personal use.
  • At the time motorway services were owned by the Ministry and leased to operators, subject to conditions. By buying the land themselves Fortes would have escaped the regulations which all services had to abide by.
  • Similarly, operators were invited to bid for contracts to build each service area. By choosing their own site, Fortes were guaranteeing themselves the contract and a lucrative location - and the Ministry weren't going to fall for that.
  • All motorway services which had been built so far served one half of the motorway, and had proven to be far too small. By building one service area that served four different carriageways, Fortes would have almost certainly encountered the same problem, but four times worse.
  • Services were often the last aspect of motorway planning to be considered, as they had to fit around what was already there. Fortes were offering to help the Ministry long before the Ministry had even considered what facilities they needed.
  • To stress the point, had the junction been built as Fortes seemed to hope it would be, in engineering terms it would have probably been the most complicated section of motorway in British history - all so they could get some business.

With Hindsight

All of those points aside, the idea was only ridiculous because it was so different to what was happening at the time.

  • The Prior Report of 1978 was the start of developers being encouraged to recommend places to build new services, with Ferrybridge being the first one to open in 1985.
  • By 1993, the practice had changed so that all new services were planned privately by developers - exactly what Fortes had been doing here.
  • A-roads are not subject to the same regulations and Fortes were able to build restaurants in places such as Peartree and Barnsdale Bar and call them "services", while escaping all the formal regulations which made it a service area.
  • Had this site been connected to the A38 it would not have been signed from the motorway. 10 years later two services in similar situations had opened and were signed: Aust and Gordano, both close by.
  • The Ministry later proposed building services just down the road, and at a junction, at Overcourt.
  • Building at such a busy location would have ensured the facilities were still needed, whereas there have been lots of problems with the route of the M4 west of here being diverted away from services.
  • The fact the Ministry hadn't so far given a moment's thought as to how services would work in this complex corner of the motorway network could have easily meant they would approve the first solution they were presented with. Building at the interchange would have made evenly spreading the rest of the services much easier.
  • In 1993 Fortes were again accused of building services by stealth at Pease Pottage - but this time they got their way.