Motorway Services Online

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Petrol Stations

BP petrol station.
Motorway fuel is notoriously expensive.

For the current price of fuel, you need to consult the fuel brand in question.

A petrol station, filling station, forecourt, PFS (petrol filling station) are all effectively words to describe the same thing. It's also colloquially known as a 'garage' or 'service station', though those phrases are also used to describe mechanics and service areas.

While petrol stations can be found all other world, this page looks at their contribution to service areas. All signposted services (on motorways and on A-roads) are required to sell fuel, but rest areas are not. The petrol station is the only service area facility which you can be sure will be open at night.

Although most petrol stations are supplied by one of the major oil companies, and covered in their branding, sometimes they are ran by somebody else. At motorway services, it always used to be the operator. As Moto and Roadchef wanted to focus on catering, they have since sold most of their forecourts to the likes of Euro Garages. This has created the unusual situation where the two neighbouring facilities are effectively competing with each other to sell food.

Fuel Pricing

Petrol stations on motorways and major roads frequently receive complaints that they charge prices well above the prices charged locally, especially at supermarkets. Newspaper articles frequently point out that as much as 20p per litre can be saved by driving a few miles. Operators have been reluctant to comment on why their prices are so high, occasionally muttering about high operation costs or pressure from the forecourt brand.

There is a little bit of truth in this. Cheap fuel that is sold in supermarkets makes very little profit, if any. This is fine if the rest of your business is able to subsidise it, but motorway services were traditionally run on tight profit margins with high running costs. Regulations also made it difficult for them to cross-subsidise because they are supposed to be competing with each other and not with neighbouring towns.

In practice, a lot of customers of motorway petrol stations are charging the price to their employer, so not worried about the bill. This leads to motorists accusing the forecourt of taking advantage of a captive market. Some business fuel cards even charge a flat rate across the country, irrespective of the actual price. Washington and Southwaite briefly started promoting their low fuel prices, but abandoned this practice shortly after.

One name may be able to shake things up completely: Applegreen. Their entire business model is that people will drive a long way to find cheap petrol, so when they founded their business in Ireland they heavily promoted their low fuel prices, hoping that customers will stop to buy more food from them in return. Indeed on one occasion they were told to raise their prices because the queue was disrupting the motorway.

Having run several motorway services like this, and many petrol stations in the UK, they then took over Welcome Break, and look set to be introducing the same prophecy with them. This may prompt other operators to follow.

Petrol stations are not required to advertise their fuel price, but it is common practice that they do, if only to avoid disappointment at the pumps. Highway authorities have explicitly ruled out taking action against service areas with seemingly excessive fuel prices.


Old petrol station.
Early motorway services sold a range of fuel.

When the first motorway services were being designed, the emphasis was on the motoring side of things. Operators were expected to sell fuel, repair broken vehicles and operate a recovery service - the food and toilets were almost a mere a bit on the side. As a result, it was hard to find a developer who was excited by both selling fuel and serving food.

In addition, the government were very concerned about a fuel monopoly, so they required at least four brands of fuel to be made available - and those brands had to be agreed in writing. This requirement was reduced to two, and then this and other regulations were removed all together in 1979. What followed was a long period where the petrol station appeared to be completely detached from the rest of the service area, while the operators invested mostly in food.

In the late 1980s, as service areas became increasingly deregulated, oil companies like Esso started taking a key role in designing new service areas, with operators only becoming involved in the main building. The sales shop also started to become larger, to the point where it is now often a mini-service area in itself, filled with items for sale. By selling food, hot drinks, fuel and having toilets, these petrol station sales shops are now ticking all the boxes expected of a service area, leaving any other facilities (including the main building) free to open and close as they wish.

At smaller services, the forecourt shop and main amenity building tend to be combined into one.

The Applegreen/Welcome Break business model of being a fuel brand as well as a food one is like a return to old times, where the whole service area is run under one brand name.

Away from motorways there is no formal planning process, and both oil brands and service area operators can buy land where they think it would be profitable. The two fastest-growing major operators appear to be Euro Garages and Applegreen, both pursuing a policy of building a forecourt and surrounding it with food names.

There are no specific regulations attached to petrol stations at service areas. Operators are "encouraged" to provide free air and water, and to cater for a variety of fuels and vehicle types, but no more detail is provided.

Road Signs

Fuel price motorway sign.
Separate diesel and unleaded symbols, only used in Northern Ireland.

Full details: Motorway Signs

Since 1982, motorway signs have been expected to specify the price of fuel. This fell out of favour because it was too difficult to keep up to date.

Since 2012, the forecourt brand logo is expected to be shown on signs, and a fuel price comparison sign has been experimented with on the M5. The sign, initially popular with motorists, didn't appear to increase competition.

The symbols work as follows. While they are supposed to be informative, historically the signs they are attached to haven't been kept up-to-date, and nowadays they tend not to be used.

  • white pump symbol on a blue or green sign: generic forecourt sign (added 2002)
  • black pump symbol on a white sign: generic forecourt sign (added 2002)
  • black pump symbol on a blue or green sign: diesel fuel
  • green pump symbol on a blue or white sign: unleaded fuel
  • four circles: Four Star fuel
  • pump symbol with a round head: old-style generic symbol (removed 1994)
  • separate 'LPG' symbol: LPG is available (added 2002)
  • separate electric car symbol: a charging point is available