ALONG with 3m other workers, Eamonn, a civil servant, used to commute into London daily. It was once an easy jaunt of 30 minutes by train from Coulsdon South to Victoria. But after years of strikes and driver shortages at Southern Rail, the operator on that line, getting to work became a lottery—a train running on time felt like a “luxury for special occasions only,” he groans. With Southern cancelling up to 350 trains a day, in one three-week period last autumn he managed to get to the office on only two days. Eventually he moved to Liverpool to escape his awful commute.

Many other Londoners are changing the way they work because of the railways’ poor, pricey service. On January 2nd rail fares across Britain rose by an average of 3.4%, the largest increase since 2013. Over the past decade fares have risen twice as fast as salaries. Falling subsidies mean that passengers now pick up 70% of the rail network’s costs, up from 50% ten years ago.

Until now, passengers have put up with it. Since the industry was privatised in the mid-1990s, the number of rail journeys in the south-east has soared by 130%, though fares have risen by 45% in real terms. But that seems to be changing. The year to April 2017 saw the first big drop in passenger numbers in the south-east outside a recession (see chart).

Many rail executives blame a Brexit-induced slowdown for falling traffic. But that doesn’t explain why the drop-off has been highest in the south-east. Indeed, since the referendum in June 2016, output in London has grown faster than in any other British region and employment has risen.

More likely it is high fares and unreliable service that are persuading commuters to change how they work, says Stephen Joseph of the Campaign for Better Transport, a pressure group. In the six months to September, journeys made on season tickets—which save money for daily commuters—fell by a tenth, while journeys made using single-use tickets continued to rise. The trend is strongest in the south-east, where fares are highest and services heavily disrupted. With more part-time jobs and technology that lets people work from home, going to the office every day is falling out of fashion. Employers, facing high rents, are keen to encourage this. The amount of space per employee in the City of London has fallen from 17 square metres (183 square feet) in the 1990s to just 11 now.

The fall in passenger numbers creates a financial headache for ministers. Train operating companies can claim compensation if they undershoot revenue forecasts. So “one way or another” the government will take the hit, says Gerald Khoo, a rail analyst at Liberum, a bank. On December 29th Lord Adonis resigned as chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission and called for the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, to quit for “bailing out” private rail operators, which he denies.

If the government ends up forking out more for the everyday running of the railways, its investment plans may be dented. Track-electrification schemes could be further scaled back. Transport for London, which runs the Tube, has shelved upgrades to the Jubilee and Northern lines, following falling ticket sales.

The government is considering limiting fare increases more strictly in the future. That would cut train operators’ revenue further. Mr Joseph suggests that moving to a simpler fare structure, with season tickets for part-time commuters, could lure more people back onto trains, as such schemes have elsewhere in Europe. Londoners may not be willing to wait. As Eamonn notes, in Liverpool getting to work costs only £15 ($20) a week—and even on strike days the trains get him to work on time.