At times of economic difficulties, companies' true values are often dramatically exposed. Some organisations will stand alongside their customers, seek innovative ways to lighten the burden and benefit from the goodwill created – while others will elect to tighten the screw, exploit any monopoly and squeeze every last penny out of us.
The recent hiking of rail station car parking charges by a number of train companies is a perfect example of this. With inflation on the increase, the need for people to get to work and the accepted need to protect the environment, the last companies you'd expect to be hitting us right now would be the train companies. But you'd be wrong.
Station parking charges have just risen by more than double the rate of inflation for customers of many rail companies, adding increased pressure to commuters (and leisure travellers) who already have to pay over the odds for often poor quality parking services.
If we were seeing visible improvements to the commuter experience, some increase would be acceptable, but we're not. We're simply witnessing – according to a spokesman from the RAC Foundation – rail companies "topping up their profits".
My own family's experiences bear this out. At Christmas we'd planned a couple of days away in London. By booking ahead online, we'd managed to get there and back from less than 40 on East Coast. Full marks to them. Unfortunately, the joy of saving so much money was soon replaced by bitterness when we discovered that the cost of leaving our car at Leeds rail station from the Tuesday morning until the Thursday afternoon would end up costing us 58. That's right – nearly 50 per cent more than the total cost of travel. Fair enough, we did get a discount on travel, but didn't we pay for it? I know Christmas is a time when one is encouraged to think of the Nativity and the message of peace brought by Our Lord. This experience, on the other hand, simply reminded us of that Old Testament chestnut: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
It's not as if the experience of long stay parking at Leeds rail station is much to celebrate. Turning left into the car park requires a level of driving ability that would make Top Gear's The Stig look like an amateur. If you do make it in one manoeuvre, you then discover that you need to possess the arms of a gibbon to reach the ticket.
Leaving is not any easier. Any car greater in size than your average shopping trolley cannot approach the exit barriers in a manner that allows easy insertion of your ticket without the driver first completing a complex series of reverses, in order to line the car up with the machine.
If the rail company thinks the happy expressions on the faces of people driving out of the station are an indication of their satisfaction with the service, they're mistaken. They're just pleased to have got out at all.
When I look at airport parking charges, my mood doesn't brighten (as I've managed to complete several foreign trips where it has cost me more to park than to fly to Spain and back), but at least you can pre-book ahead and obtain a discount. The barrier even recognises your registration number and lets you in.
Why can't train companies do this? If I'm travelling to Leeds for a business trip to London in the morning, I know that unless I'm arriving at the crack of dawn, there's no guarantee there'll be a space and I might end up scrambling around the inner ring road, in a state of panic, hoping I can get to the Criterion or an NCP park before my train departs. It's not what you would call a "hassle free" service, but it would be if I could book ahead.
But train companies don't do "hassle free". In only one of my last five trips to London has there been a snack trolley operating in standard class carriages. And never, in recent memory, has there been a journey without at least one announcement advising us that there is an element of the expected service of which we will be deprived – and this all smacks of complacency. We're only British customers. We'll put up with it. We have to get to work after all.
We car drivers are being screwed on a number of fronts. Higher fuel taxes than anywhere else in the world, higher road tax, poor quality and pothole-ridden roads and diesel approaching 1.50 a gallon. We can see the attraction of trains – we get it! But it's about time the iron horse stopped treating its customer like a cash cow.