Travelling anywhere? Here's how to avoid disgusting motorway services food, pricey airport sandwiches and dubious pork pies on trains – Stephen Jardine

Tebay and Gloucester services have shown it’s possible to serve fresh, seasonal produce in a welcoming environment

Every year in the UK, cars travel 68 billion road miles on motorways. That begs two questions. In a climate crisis, what hope is there for the planet when we are so wedded to our vehicles and, secondly, given that enormous captive audience, why is food on the go so unutterably awful?

This summer I’ve spent a lot of time in motorway service stations and, with very few exceptions, they are appalling. If you stop to eat on a major arterial route in this country there is only really one way to have a good experience and that is by drastically lowering your expectations. Why is it so difficult?

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Just south of Newcastle recently, I had the choice of burgers ordered from a push-button screen or sandwiches that looked like they dated from the days of rationing. Unsurprisingly, this took its toll on customers. Every table featured couples who looked like there were about to divorce or lorry drivers reassessing their career choices. I’ve no idea how the staff cope. If want to cut offending rates we should just sentence those convicted to six months working in Burger King at Charnock Richard on the M6.

There’s no excuse for it. In most places, hospitality businesses are subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and all kinds of local issues but motorway service stations have a monopoly that should guarantee success. From guaranteed footfall, all day every day, to supply lines literally running past their front door, it’s impossible to understand how they get it so wrong.

Yet nobody cares. Trip Advisor reviews for Forton services in Lancashire range from “disgusting” to “horrendous” to “gross” and the management don’t seem to bother to reply. It doesn’t have to be this way. Tebay and Gloucester services have shown it’s possible to serve fresh, local, seasonal produce in a clean, pleasant and welcoming environment, but until they get the licence for every motorway stop in Britain, overpriced and revolting remains the dish of the day.

Alternative methods of transport aren’t much better. At Stansted Airport recently, I gave Pret a Manger the price of a three-course meal for a couple of sandwiches and then couldn’t eat find a table to eat them at. One was occupied by Irvine Welsh, who I’m pretty sure was gathering material for a new novel based around a fast-food operative who is driven berserk by the lack of natural light and lures customers into the back of shop with the promise of a seat before killing them and serving them up in a BLT.

In theory, trains should be the best option for on-the-go eating. Every service likes to boast about the celebrity chef it is working with to deliver delicious meals based around fresh produce and artisan suppliers. That’s all very well until you go to the buffet car and discover the bloke with the trolley didn’t get on at Peterborough and the choice is a pork pie close to its sell-by date or a pain au chocolat from Crewe.

So if you are travelling this summer, there really is only smart piece of advice. Take something to eat with you. It will cost less, taste better and you can enjoy it smug in the knowledge that everyone else is looking on with envy.



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