'Petrol and diesel prices at motorway services are totally unjustified'

Mike Rutherford will continue to give motorway service areas a wide berth until they drop their fuel prices

Opinion - motorway services

What a maddening mess our motorway service areas have needlessly got themselves into. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to them for being there to provide drivers and their passengers with free parking for a couple of hours, loos, food and drink outlets, plus shops selling everything from motoring accessories to collectible (honest) copies of Auto Express.

But the problem with motorway service areas (MSAs) is the prices they charge for using their petrol and diesel pumps. And while the boss of Moto claims it’s hamstrung by bureaucracy, I make no apologies for repeating my claim that drivers on MSA forecourts are being heinously ripped off – despite the fact that they’re often ‘captive’ victims unable to buy fuel elsewhere. And I can tell you that no oil giant, fuel retailer or MSA owner/operator has ever contacted me to deny that the petrol and diesel prices they display at these sites – sometimes clearly, sometimes not – are comparatively over the top.

That’s because they’re guilty as charged. And it’s not just me who’s publicly complaining about and trying to bring an end to excessive motorway prices. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is this month joining me in pointing the finger at companies responsible for ripping off private motorists.   

“Prices at motorway services are significantly higher than at a non-motorway petrol filling station (PFS),” warns the CMA (formerly the Office of Fair Trading).  “We have found that, for these customers, pump prices at motorway PFSs were, on average, around 20 pence per litre higher for petrol and 15 ppl higher for diesel.”

But my research this month tells me that the price difference can be closer to 30 ppl – with some motorway sites charging around £1.70 a litre (£7.73 per gallon) for unleaded, while non-motorway forecourts just a few minutes away are below £1.40 (£6.37).

So the former is around 21 per cent more expensive than the latter. If you’re a car or van driver, you might be spending, say, £2,400 a year on petrol or diesel if you insist on using motorway sites. Boycott them and only refuel at the least expensive non-motorway forecourts and your fuel bill could drop below £2,000 a year. We’re not talking about mere penny-pinching here. Up for grabs are worthwhile savings of over £400 annually, possibly tens of thousands of pounds during the course of a long driving life.

Even the notoriously cautious CMA is forced to issue a stark warning that the profit margins earned by companies selling fuel to private motorists at motorway service areas are also “significantly higher” than at non-motorway sites. This, in turn, means the already-wealthy fat cats in the oil/petrol/diesel business are getting wealthier and fatter. If you’re cool with such blatant and unnecessary greediness, that’s fine.

But I happen to think it’s totally unjustified. And that’s why the last place I’d choose to fill the tanks of my personal cars and charity van would be on a motorway forecourt. So I’ll continue to give them a wide berth – until they drop their prices by around 15-20 per cent and settle for the significantly lower profit margins that they deserve.

Do you agree with Mike? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section...

Chief columnist

Mike was one of the founding fathers of Auto Express in 1988. He's been motoring editor on four tabloid newspapers - London Evening News, The Sun, News of the World & Daily Mirror. He was also a weekly columnist on the Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Sunday Times. 

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