Going, going, gone...

Someone has informed me that some staples in my old stomping grounds in Frankfurt are no more: the older post war style "Rasthof" or service areas on the older parts of Germany's 80 year old Autobahn network. Usually branded ARAL or Veba, they are quite unlike today's humungous European Union service station areas that are virtual islands with nature friendly forests, play grounds, souvenir shops, huge parking aprons for trans-continental trucks and a bevy of chain food stores, set back from the maddening rush of speeding traffic.

The wide front and the narrow

Originally "Rasthofs" were narrow affairs, with limited parking and maintenance/check up service station amenities. Dining options were either a snack bar or cafeteria. Updating consisted nothing more than coin operated dispensers for prophylactics (condoms), paid ticket access to the loos (refundable when shopping at the organic market or convenience store), showers for truckers and long distance touring bikers.

Egged on to rejoin

Watching Highway traffic speed by is as close as possible, separated only by Armco barriers, parking bays and plate glass. The layout undeniably reminds the weary traveller that one is not far away from the road. Then it finally dawns on you that the primary form of entertainment is the passing of traffic, which pretty soon, induces one to eagerly get back behind the wheel.

The Japanese exception

The obligatory fuel-food-rest pit stop is in accordance to its road culture's tastes and prevailing social trends. Japan's expressway rest stops locate the main pavillion at the rear. The frontage is mostly parking spaces segregated between busses, trucks and private cars. The food kiosks, assembled like a small Japanese village, offer quickie food and regional delicacies amidst an authentic street food feel. Being Japan, the comfort rooms, despite the hordes of tourists constantly too-ing and fro-ing, are immaculately clean.

Bridge restaurants

Italy's Autostradae are peppered with Autogrill bridge restaurants built over the roadway, connecting same brand gas stations located on both sides of the highway. Diners have the option of soaking in the charming scenery or watching traffic pass beneath their feet. Being Italy, regional cuisine specialties with the requisite espresso cafe-bar are on offer. Similar bridge restaurants by the Wienerwald chain of Austria and Movenpick of Switzerland, can be found in alpine Switzerland and Austria. This being Europe, where wine and beer is an inescapable part of the meal, the rest stops have coin operated breathalyzers for driver/diners to check their alcohol levels.

Roadhouse, motels and Route 66

Across the Atlantic, the US Interstate system along with the elder "Route" highway system gave birth to the ubiquitous Motel or Motor hotel. Motels provided traveling families a proper night's slumber break from grueling cross continent driving. Some rest stops in US states continue with the pre-Interstate tradition of having "roadhouse" style entertainment cafe's and bars with live music on some nights.

The meaning of full service then

Even with our limited highway network in the 50s and 60s, our motoring culture is already ingrained. Witness the vintage family scrap book albums that preserve memories of highway side gas stations where local delicacies and souvenirs were purchased. Esso, Mobil, Tidewater (later Flying "A"), Caltex, FilOil and the like, usually offered major repair facilities for most common tire and engine breakdowns, apart from the obligatory tire pressure check and windshield wash.

Buco-Bucayo-Bagnet all the way

Southern Tagalog region travelers look forward to their favorite "buco" pie, despite the thousands of competing buco pies on offer. In Bulacan, the competition for choice was between the rice cakes (puto-cochinta) and traditional pastries of Polo (today's Valenzuela), Bulacan and that of aristocratic Malolos. Traveling further north to Pangasinan, service stations are always an impromptu sales opportunity for vendors offering their competing versions of "bucayo", a minced toasted coconut candy soaked with caramel.

The oil crisis damper

The oil crisis years of the 70s drastically dampened our motoring society's travel habits. Gas stations had to limit their hours of operation due to shortages. Many a mom and pop pastry store and handicraft shop closed shop. In the city, the limited retail hours and rising price of real estate caused some service stations to pack up.

Fully air-conditioned

But the globalizing economy of the 80s compensated for high oil prices, making bigger and better service stations possible. With more motorists dependent on tollway travel, the cult of the expressway mega station with lots of retail space and parking slots was born. Each one pioneered its own initially unique selling proposition. Shell Bocaue NLEx wowed travelers with its spacious and fully air conditioned toilets, prompting the other branded stations to follow suit. Total gas stations were known for instant windshield cleaning, regardless if you just checked your tire pressure or just bought a stick of chewing gum at the chain convenience store. Operating 24/7, Petron, Caltex and Shell tried to out-"mega" each other by building ever larger service stations along SLEx and NLEx.

Journey breaks

An Autogrill for every scenic highway?

With more local expressway kilometers now reaching out to scenic provinces, STAR Tollway, SLEx TR3, SCTEx and TPLEx have opportunities to specify scenery friendly service areas by building bridge restaurants and retail space over the carriageways like the AGIP-Autogrills in Tuscany and Wienerwald-Swiss petrol retailers in the Alps. We wait to see what Thailand's PT&T will build on SCTEx but it doesn't look like it will be a bridge restaurant. MCX, in the heart of scenic cycle touring territory, may be 4.0kms. short, but there are opportunities to challenge Evia's monopoly for leisure activities. CAVITEx has unique over-water bay views but by virtue of being an urban expressway, CAVITEx may have to extend further into the upcoming CALAx to merit any oil major's attention for a bridge cafeteria tied to service stations on both sides of the expressway.

Petron NLEx Marilao

All this reminiscing about mega station services and convenience, usually taken for granted, was brought about by frequent visits to Petron Marilao NLEx which was reformatted some 5 years ago. Unusually, it didn't grow into a facsimile of Mega Petron Bocaue NLEx Southbound. Instead of acquiring more land behind, Petron expanded lengthwise along the highway and put up another couple of pumps at the northern end. In between the pump islands, Petron invited most of any urbanite's favorite foodie chain outlets.

Institutionalized boredom?

Some complain that chain stores homogenize the dining experience into uniform global boredom but when one thinks that globally, over one half of the world's population live urban lifestyles, this makes sense for such travelers. Their preference for the familiar, consistent and the quick "comfort food" rule over any form of adventure because the novel and unknown are particular only for their journey's final destination and not the mid-journey break.

Journey breaks

The charm

Curiously, Marilao's charm harks back to the era that actually predated the Mega stations very much like the older Rasthofs that you still find in the environs of the Frankfurt Kreuzung (crossing) between Autobahn 3 and Autobahn 5. With the establishment of the INK's (Iglesia ni Kristo) Philippine Arena a kilometer away and its busy schedule of concerts and religious assemblies, Petron Marilao's "Alte Rasthof" layout, enjoys rather good custom, inspiring Petron to duplicate the long frontage layout of the next new Petron rising up on NLEx Northbound in Plaridel.

Smooth operator

Conceptualizing and operating Petron Marilao means Petron has added Mall operator to its many multi-tasks. Not bad considering that the Petron station on the corner or Makati Ave., Jupiter and Buendia was their first try. In every successful cluster of foodie joints, the selection of outlets have to "blend" with the scenery. Hence, all those facing the NLEx wisely exploit their "ring side" seat to the view of the primary means of passive entertainment.

Well, almost...

All restaurants are fitted with large picture windows and their frontages have wide cobblestoned sidewalks while table clusters have parasols. Petron wisely resisted the temptation to plant trees, shrubs and other "vertical" landscaping along the NLEx Armco as those trees would have been a hazard to wayward crashing vehicles and would have blocked the primary view. Maybe, as a concession to some additional greenery, a few portable plastic flower boxes with bright (real) flowers may add some color to the grey paving blocks, but it isn't really necessary.


But as always, there is room for improvement. All those NLEx view restaurants are in dire need of company liveried retractable fabric awnings for the large picture windows as the afternoon sun can toast any diner posed beside the windows. Moreover, newbie arrivals to the station's road network cannot tell where the one way direction begins and ends, so orange bollards and authentic international traffic signs, positioned correctly, are in order.

Food court credit card billing

Petron Marilao gas station-as-mall food court is also devoid of utility poles, building electrical conduits underground. Masts for flood lighting were situated to keep glare from bothering drivers on the expressway. But our frequent visits revealed a festering problem over the years: sometimes credit card payments cannot be effected because telecoms links for POS (point of sale) terminals are down.

Time to install land line and internet cables

Much as the locator shops prefer telephony and internet media by cable, it appears that underground utility tunnels for telecoms cables are not accessible. Service staff have to depend on wireless dongles and we all know how congested these 3G networks are unless they're LTE (long term evolution). With the kind of clientele at Petron Marilao services, curtailed credit card payments pose lost opportunity sales and customer dissatisfaction. Likewise one cannot always rely on ATM cash machines to be online.

Make it perfect!

SM (ShoeMart) Malls always anticipate telecom connection problems whenever new outlets or new annexes open in their malls. But SM Malls always provide approved utility tunnels ready for such cables. It wouldn't take much to make a mid-journey break at Petron Marilao a reliably predictable pleasant experience.

Like the on and off problems of AutoSweep RFID of South Tollways, the disastrous exit of E-Pass, the still born Wi Tribe 4G and such oversights of Petron in mall ops, San Miguel needs to bone up on matters of electronic telecommunications. It's baby steps for sure and perhaps the timely partnership with Australian telecom giant Telstra can only be a good thing.