Increasing competition, a boom during which the low-margin business of selling fuel was bulldozed over to make way for more lucrative ventures, and short-sighted planning, all contributed to a sharp drop in the number of petrol stations.
Statistics from the Irish Petroleum Industry Association (IPIA) show that between 2000 and 2008, the number of fuel stations in the country more than halved (from 2,087 IPIA members down to 1,027). Although there has been a very slight improvement in the situation over the last four years, there are still a lot of black spots around the country that are showing no signs of recovery; areas that have given rise to the use of the term ‘petrol desert’.
“There is a danger but it’s a different kind of danger now,” says Conor Faughnan of AA Roadwatch. “Six or seven years ago, we were warning of the danger of petrol deserts in cities as sites were being lost to property development. That danger has receded and what we’re looking at now is potential petrol deserts in remote rural areas, as the individual service stations serving the more outlying areas disappear.”
On the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in West Cork, for example, there were two operating fuel stations at 10km intervals serving a sizeable catchment area. Now, they are both gone. On the 100km journey from Bantry to Cork city (via the normal Béal na mBláth route), I pass just two fuel stations, at intervals of 37km and 55km. Even a decade ago, there would have been an additional six fuel stations on the same stretch of road. Sometimes you need to go a long way out of your way, burning through precious fuel in the hope of finding fuel and toilet facilities.
“There are still people exiting the business,” says Faughnan. “It’s literally true that if you go into a service station to buy €30 worth of fuel and a cup of coffee, the garage is making more money on the cup of coffee than they are on the fuel.”
A spokesman for the Irish Petroleum Industry Association acknowledges that it is often a problem for motorists trying to find a petrol station close to them and it’s a situation that’s not getting any better.
“There has been a decline in the number of petrol stations in Ireland over the last decade,” said the IPIA, “primarily due to the very tight margins in the petrol retail business in the intensively competitive market in Ireland. Secondly, planning authorities in Ireland should have close regard to the sort of situation that has occurred in France (where fuel stations are currently closing at the rate of 250 per year) and other European countries for some time where permission is given to very large outlets that necessitate people having to go out of their way to buy petrol. This is not an efficient way of running a country.”
One of the longest stretches of roadway without any fuel station is the M7/M8 Cork-Dublin motorway. There is a full 230km from Cork to Rathcoole before you come across a fuel station that you can pull into without going off the main road. This is an extraordinary situation.
There are two fuel stations situated just off the Cork-Dublin motorway (at Junction 8 outside Cashel and Junction 14 outside Monasterevin), but both of these are unofficial ‘services’ areas and both of them, therefore, don’t have adequate signage, making them easy to miss. While signage directs the Cork-Dublin motorist to go ‘offline’ in search of a filling station, many don’t do so unless they know just how far they have to drive off the motorway.
So why the dearth of services on the country’s main highway? When the old N7/N8 existed, you didn’t have to go far to find the simple necessities of the long-distance motorist — fuel, shops, toilet, restaurant, etc.
The completion of the Cork-Dublin motorway system was only done to the end of Phase 1 — ie the motorway was built but the plan to ensure the installation of necessary services was not put in place. Instead, there was a hope that various elements in the private sector would jump into the breach and provide the services at the prospect of profiting from it. At the same time, there was a certain level of abdication of responsibility at Government level from TDs who didn’t savour the prospect of being accused of putting established retailers on the old road out of business by putting in new ones on the motorway.
NRA spokesman Seán O’Neill said that if funding was brought back to the level required, his organisation would hope to reinstate that programme but they don’t have any confirmation of additional funding at this point.
Surely this is an unacceptable state of affairs for the main artery in the Republic? “Obviously, it is an issue and the provision of online services is something we’d like to see happen, especially on that stretch of motorway. We are working with local authorities as they work with developers to satisfy a need,” says O’Neill.
This back-door system of finishing off the job seems to be making some progressive steps. There are now two prospective fuel stations in the pipeline on the M8 — one at Junction 13 outside Mitchelstown (Applegreen) and the other just north of Fermoy at Junction 14 from local company Oronco Ltd. Planning permission is still pending on both.
There is a hope that more will follow, of course. But for now, the petrol station famine continues, so it’s back to that age-old advice of making sure to fill the tank, pack a lunch, and visit the toilet before you set out on your journey.