Transport Focus (official website) is a 'watchdog' for transport users in the UK, sponsored by the Department for Transport. After England's major road network was taken out of direct government control, Transport Focus expanded their remit in 2015 to represent the needs of users of those roads. This included their launch of a regular investigation into motorway service areas, which began in 2017.
While their full study gives an interesting account of what customers look for in a service station, it is the so-called 'league table' that attracts press attention. The league table normally shows that the vast majority of service areas achieve virtually the same score, but by organising them into a scoreboard and ignoring the margin of error, it adds potential for some dramatic headlines that in turn generate publicity that keeps the organisation going.
Transport Focus's work remains much more thorough than many of the other 'surveys' that are published about service stations. However, while they sell their report as being for the benefit of consumers, their work is only really of immediate benefit of service station operators. For example, recent surveys have studied the use and satisfaction of different ordering systems, which no road user is going to factor into their journey, but the surveys have never studied the impact of service station location - which is extremely important to road users.
Their relentless positivity can be seen when comparing their satisfaction scores with those of consumer group Which? Magazine, which in a similar period produced much, much lower results. There is nothing inherently wrong with either study - they are both useful tools with a lot of data that has been packaged it up for very different audiences.
As the UK's road authorities and the road network's facilities now have virtually no supervision, many people imagine Transport Focus will be that regulator, but their remit is merely to represent road users and their work on roads is more like a consultancy, where they provide helpful advice to the industry but never say anything that will cause any upset.
The 2023 survey took place during the spring and was published in October 2023, which began with a media event was held at Leeds Skelton Lake services and every participating operator sending a simultaneous tweet praising Transport Focus. This follows a summer where a large number of surveys from car hire companies have already been published and received a lot of media attention, despite those ones involving very little research.
Transport Focus's results are a little bit more considered, and were as follows:
The media were interested in Hartshead Moor coming last again, but Transport Focus were keen to point out that this may have been as refurbishment works were ongoing, following the previous year's results being published. The Transport Focus summary also pointed out that the Transport Focus survey results have improved since Transport Focus started doing surveys.
The results were published with the headline "satisfaction is high", despite starting from last year's high base. All four operators were praised, and while an example of a negative experience was given as staff being rude, it was immediately noted that this was rare and could have been because they were busy.
Roadchef and Moto did well in the top 10s, with Extra surprisingly lacking, and Moto and Welcome Break at the lower ends. What's more interesting is that newer buildings didn't seem to yield any better results. Another interesting detail is that Extra and Roadchef performed well for perceived value for money, whereas Moto and Welcome Break performed poorly on this metric. Killington Lake's toilets were fully recommended and Annandale Water was the most-recommended site.
HGV drivers remained the least satisfied road users, and prices remained the biggest complaint, although one interesting chart did suggest that this was only true for Welcome Break and Moto - the two operators we already knew were inflating prices - suggesting their policy was not unnoticed by the public.
The delayed 2022 survey was published in October, where a media event was held at the winning Rugby services, which is also the UK's newest entry. The report announced that "MSAs are doing a great job" and that the results show that "service areas have once again performed well". Some issues were raised, like the high prices (as ever) and the poor HGV parking provision, but these were quickly glossed over and the government were thanked for improving HGV facilities.
This time the scope of the survey was expanded to include Wales and Scotland, but Moto did not enter sites outside England, and Westmorland opted not to enter any of their sites, which caused a lot of confusion in the media. Stop 24 did enter for the first time in a while.
Another change for 2022 was that customers surveyed would now be offered the opportunity to provide detailed feedback at a later date. This allowed people to respond in their own time, though it assumes their experience was in any way memorable.
What is interesting about the 2022 results is that the grade inflation is much more severe than it has been in previous years. The report itself asks that the figures do not be compared with previous years, because of the changed methodology and different time of year.
The 2022 survey received even more media coverage than usual, including a feature on Have I Got News For You, where one of the panellists called the league table "a waste of time".
Usual small print aside, the survey did show a large quantity of Moto service areas in the top 10, and of Welcome Breaks in the bottom 10. Euro Garages were technically the best operator, and Stop 24 technically the worst, but Extra were the best of the main operators and Welcome Break the worst of the main ones, where they scored particularly badly on toilets.
Extra service areas were said to be especially popular, with people seeking them out and an "exceptionally high" number of people recommending them. McDonald's and Costa were said to be the most popular brands.
The 2020 survey methodology was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Transport Focus wisely did not publish a complete list of all scores. Instead they published the average score for each operator, and allowed the media to heap praise on every service area run by that operator, including ones which aren't on motorways.
As always, the results for each operator were broadly proportionate to the number of sites they owned, with Moto getting 93% satisfaction and much-smaller Westmorland getting 97% satisfaction. Much was made of Euro Garages increasing their score from 86% to 96%, but as they only run one whole site, that figure is based on a much smaller sample and is prone to changing a lot.
The 2019 survey was conducted in Spring 2019. In general most scores had fallen slightly, while the bottom few had all improved their act. The end result was that the rankings were shaken up a bit while remaining broadly the same.
In particular, Euro Garages had fallen from the best operator to the worst, leaving Westmorland back in front. It was another good year for Roadchef, and a disappointing one for Moto. It also found that professional drivers were the least satisfied, leisure the most, and prices remained the main bone of contention.
For the first time, the highly-publicised league table produced a ranking for every single entrant, breaking apart the sites which had the same score.
The second survey was conducted in Spring 2018. It worked much like the previous survey, with modest improvements across the board.
Moto appeared to have a rough ride, with several poorly-performing sites and a poor total score. Westmorland and Euro Garages came joint top, with Roadchef responsible for the two top service stations.
If you compare each individual site with 2017's score, you'll see a lot of wild fluctuations. This is the risk of using a small dataset, and asking a public who aren't that fussed. Even so, the general trends are still interesting.
Separate to the main study, in 2018 Transport Focus also carried out a pilot study to gather feedback on the service areas on the A3 and the A34. The study looked at the usual topics like the type of road user and the visitor satisfaction, as well as other comments such as users preferring a single amenity building, and not recognising the modern A-road service area signage.
The first survey was conducted in Spring 2017, with the results presented at Beaconsfield in October 2017.
Although it analysed various aspects of how people use services, the main product was an individual customer satisfaction rating for every service station in England. The assessment covered road safety, pedestrian safety, wifi, and the quality of the exterior and interior.
Following the results, the Department for Transport pledged to investigate concerns with a shortage of HGV parking spaces.
Perhaps surprisingly for what promised to be a rigorous review, the overall conclusion was that most services were already meeting customer's needs fine. Of the 112 services visited, only two scored less than 75%. Many received more than 90% satisfaction, and 97% of people polled said they would happily visit the same service station again.
Value for money on parking, availability of parking and value for money on food were the three biggest concerns raised.
The full results are included below.