Not too long ago, Metro-North consistently ranked among the world's most-admired commuter railroads. But suddenly -- within the last year -- its 30-year reputation for safety has disastrously jumped the tracks. The primary reason is a horrific run of accidents.

There was the crackup Dec. 1, when a train on the Hudson line screamed into a notoriously dangerous curve at Spuyten Duyvil doing 82 mph and flew off the tracks -- killing four people and injuring more than 70.

There was the mess May 17 in Bridgeport, Conn., when an eastbound Metro-North train derailed at 74 mph and got clobbered 20 seconds later by a westbound train in an accident that seriously injured more than 50 people and knocked out service for several days.

There was the accident May 28, when a maintenance worker was hit by a train in West Haven, Conn. And last week, a track worker was killed by a northbound Metro-North train in Harlem.

What gives?

Every accident has its own story. But the Federal Railroad Administration has released a report which finds -- in general -- that Metro-North has overemphasized on-time performance while tolerating an ineffective safety department, a poor "safety culture" and an ineffective training department.

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast correctly says these corrosive attitudes didn't develop overnight. While Metro-North never explicitly decided to trade an enviable on-time record for a heightened safety risk, employees began to cut corners and risks began to grow.

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Compounding the problem were retirements. The railroad was formed in 1983, and many of its employees hit their 30-year mark last year and put in their papers. A large number of less experienced workers took their places.

Fortunately, Joseph Giulietti, Metro-North's new chief, spent his formative years at the railroad and today has an explicit mandate from the top to focus on safety as well as punctuality. But what a nightmarish way to learn a lesson -- and what a cautionary tale for railroads everywhere.