A rear access, better known as a 'secret exit', also known as a 'rear exit' or 'side exit', is a road which allows people to get from the service area to the local road network without using the main entrance (a motorway slip road). The phrase was dropped in the 2022 regulations, instead using the catchy title of "connections to roadside facilities from the local road network".
They are provided to provide staff, highway vehicles and the emergency services access to the service area and the wider motorway network without having to make a lengthy detour up to the next junction. Their use by hotel guests is permitted at older sites.
In some areas, recruiting local staff for a low-paid service station job is difficult, and the time saved by not having to drive up to the next motorway junction (which also means you have the option of walking or cycling to work) can help kerb staffing difficulties.
Operators are required to prevent anybody else from using them and, since 2008, to prevent them from being used as a short-cut. The extent to which they actually do this is debatable; signage and procedures are inconsistent, and there are plenty of surprising examples.
Most service areas are fitted with either rising bollards, barriers or a number plate recording system, to prevent unauthorised traffic. In practice, most of those systems are either broken or not used. In some areas new security measures have been vandalised within weeks of being installed.
While police enforcement is rare, it does happen. A common trick is to park the police car out of sight at the end of the road, and stop everybody caught using the lane. Whether or not a fine can be issued depends on the quality of the signage at that particular location, but the presence of 'no entry' signs would normally be enough: you can only really argue the situation is confusing if you're a hotel guest or a contractor who may or may not be an authorised user.
Police enforcement varies by region, and is often prompted by complaints from residents or the highway authority. While most complaints about unauthorised traffic stem mostly from the residents who have to contend with it, most of the unauthorised traffic is also people living locally.
In some areas, enforcement is virtually non-existent, and unauthorised vehicles can be seen using the rear access every couple of minutes. Many of these routes have been included on Google Street View and some unscrupulous estate agents have been known to use them to advertise a nearby property having good motorway access. There is lots of evidence of these roads being used to divert traffic away from the motorway, and many operators have placed advertising signs along them to attract passing trade. Even local councils have a habit of providing direction and restriction signs at their end of a rear access, again suggesting they are just accepting that many people will ignore the rules.
There are several reasons general traffic is not allowed to use the rear access.
The first is quite simply that it's an operational requirement. Government policy states that people must not be able to join the motorway via a service station, so the operators must ensure that is the case. More recently, a planning condition will also be imposed on service stations saying the same thing. Even if the unauthorised traffic is only trying to use the facilities, the policy is clear that the service area's priority should be to serve motorway traffic.
Secondly, especially in the case of the older service area, the lanes these rear accesses connect to are not designed to handle much traffic at all. They were usually built at the same time as the motorway but with the minimal possible expenditure. They are narrow, weak, and may take traffic into residential or congested areas. They are also often littered with pot holes, even by service station car park standards.
At the service station end, there is often an unconventional road layout. At some service areas, the rear access requires traffic to travel the wrong way down the one-way road, while others end with confusing or badly-aligned junctions. This isn't so bad when the only people using it are staff who can be trained on the issue, but it becomes a problem when the general public are using it.
Finally, when people are taking a shortcut - especially when they don't want to get caught - they tend to speed up. The high speeds which unauthorised traffic has been seen reaching on these narrow lanes creates additional safety issues, especially if they are heading straight into the service area car park or a residential area.
Rear accesses were a standard feature of motorway service area design from the very start.
As early as 1961, the Ministry of Transport were complaining about the gates at Newport Pagnell having been left open. They were shocked to watch three vehicles abuse it in 10 minutes - particularly impressive when you consider how empty the motorway would have been at the time! The Ministry of Transport were frustrated by this because, as the landowner, they treated this as abuse of their land, and made numerous complaints to operators about this.
At one stage rear accesses were considered so important to service area design that one service area considered on the M1 in the 1960s would have had both rear accesses bridge a railway line: a considerable investment for what was basically an optional extra.
When Rownhams was planned in 1971, local residents were deeply concerned about the rear access being abused. This became a regular topic of correspondence as soon as it opened in 1976. The Department of Transport eventually admitted in 1978 that they had no suggestions as to how this could be addressed. The contract for Sandbach (opened 1975) was the first to explicitly state that the rear access must be controlled.
Despite staff not wanting to get out and lock it, a gate and padlock remained the only way of securing these exits until 1977, when Keele trialled a rising bollard system. Being close to the University, Keele was a popular shortcut for students. The rising gate was too expensive to roll out immediately, and frequently attracted vandalism.
With the creation of lodges, the Department for Transport reluctantly accepted the idea that lodge traffic can use the rear access to turn around. They preferred this to traffic making lengthy detours. This was stopped for all new lodges in the 2008 regulations, and the procedure is starting to be phased out nationwide, but many redundant road signs remain.
With more families owning a car and fewer deliveries coming from the local area, rear accesses became less important for staff, although they continued to be included for convenience. In 2008, a new rule was introduced stating that all new service areas must have the Rear Access permanently sealed off. This means emergency traffic can use the rear access to get to the service area, but not to join the motorway.
A new use (or problem) for rear accesses emerged in the 2020s: some service areas are now earning money on the side by selling food to local residents via food delivery apps. This means local couriers are looking for the fastest way in and out of the service area, and normally that will be via the rear access.
Services with Rear Accesses
Here is a comprehensive list of all the service areas with a rear access, and the road they join on to. Several unbuilt service areas have been included if it was clear there would have been a rear access.
UK service areas are listed first, with the five Irish examples at the end.
- London Gateway - Ellesmere Avenue
- Toddington - B530
- Newport Pagnell - Little Linford Lane
- Watford Gap - Station Road
- Lutterworth - Swanford Road (not built)
- Leicester Forest East - Baines Lane
- Long Whatton - Dry Pot Lane (northbound), Smithy Lane (southbound) (not built)
- Trowell - Waterloo Lane
- Tibshelf - Newton Wood Lane (originally going to be Saw Pit Lane)
- Woodall - A618 Rotherham Road
- Woolley Edge - Bramley Lane
- Medway - Matts Hill Road
- Trumps Green - Kitsmead Lane (south-westbound only)
- Fleet - Pale Lane
- Kempshott - Beggarwood Lane (north-eastbound), Garlic Lane (south-eastbound) (not built)
- Winchester - Chillandham Lane (south-eastbound only, now closed)
- Heston - North Hyde Lane (northbound), Phoenix Way (southbound) - unusual in that "M4 diverted traffic" signs point down both roads
- Reading - Deans Copse Road (westbound)
- Membury - Ramsbury Road
- Leigh Delamere - Honey Knob Hill
- Pucklechurch - Westerleigh Road (westbound), Batchfield Lane (eastbound) (not built)
- Frankley - Illey Lane (northbound), Ravenhayes Lane (southbound)
- Newland Common - Tagwell Road (northbound), Trench Lane (southbound) (not built)
- Strensham - Hill View Road
- Gloucester - Winnycroft Lane (northbound only)
- Michaelwood - Mule Street (northbound), Wick Lane (southbound)
- Moreton Valence - Standish Lane (not built)
- Sedgemoor - Strowland Lane (northbound), Mendip Road (southbound)
- Taunton Deane - Lowton Road (northbound), unnamed road (southbound)
- Harborough Magna - Montilo Lane (not built)
- Corley - Highfield Lane (north-westbound), Smorral Lane (south-eastbound)
- Hilton Park - Hilton Lane
- Doxey - Seighford Road (northbound), Aston Bank (southbound)
- Stafford - Eccleshall Road (northbound), Eccleshall Road (southbound, alternative plan)
- Keele - Three Mile Lane
- Sandbach - A533 The Hill
- Knutsford - A5033 Northwich Road
- Newton-le-Willows - Rob Lane (northbound), Newton Lane (southbound)
- Charnock Richard - Mill Lane
- Lancaster - unnamed road (northbound), Greaves Hill Lane (southbound)
- Burton-in-Kendal - Tarn Lane
- Killington Lake - Fairthorns Road
- Tebay - unnamed road
- Southwaite - unnamed road
- Norton Canes - Betty's Lane
- Heart of Scotland (Harthill) - Miller Street (westbound), B718 Westcraigs Road (eastbound) (both pedestrians only)
- Havering-atte-Bower - B175 North Road (not built)
- Hatfield - Mill Hill Road (northbound), New Mill Field Road (southbound) (not built)
- Clacket Lane - Clacket Lane
- Iver - Thorney Lane South/A4007 Slough Road (different plans, neither built)
- Warwick - Fosse Way (northbound), Windmill Hill Lane (southbound)
- Severn View - Sandy Lane (no through route)
- Rivington - Anderton Lane (now closed)
- Birch - Whittle Lane
- Hartshead Moor - Highmoor Lane
- Ferrybridge - Cattlelaith Lane (no through route)
- Hensall - Moor Lee Lane (not built)
- Sprotbrough - Melton Road (not built)
Only A-road service areas that are built like a traditional twin site are shown here:
- Newmarket - Heath Road (eastbound)
- Sutton Scotney - Barton Road (northbound), By Pass Road (southbound)
- Monmouth - Groesenon Road (north-westbound), unnamed road (south-eastbound)