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Editorial: Tragic lessons can steer LIRR safety

A westbound Long Island Rail Road train entering

A westbound Long Island Rail Road train entering the Freeport station in the early morning hours of the day March 11, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Not too long ago, Metro-North consistently ranked among the world's most-admired commuter railroads while the LIRR was considered a forlorn sibling. But suddenly -- within the last year -- the system for the city's northern suburbs and Connecticut saw its 30-year reputation for safety disastrously jump the tracks.

The primary reason was 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 at 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 an accident May 28 in which a train killed a maintenance worker in West Haven, Conn., and just last week, a Metro-North track worker was killed when a northbound train hit him in Harlem.

While every accident has its own story, the Federal Railroad Administration has released a report which finds that Metro-North overemphasized on-time performance while tolerating ineffective safety and training departments as well as a poor "safety culture."

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast admits 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. Compounding the problem were many retirements with a larger-than-usual number of less experienced workers stepping in.

When the federal agency does its deep probe into the LIRR safety culture, it is likely to find a better record. The railroad has already added seven more locations to the nine it had designated as "critical curves." That means slower speeds, new signs for engineers and increased monitoring of these spots.

Prendergast has given Metro-North -- as well as the LIRR -- an explicit mandate to focus on safety as well as punctuality. And warning systems known as "positive train control" will be installed.

But what a nightmarish way to learn a lesson -- and what a cautionary tale for rail systems everywhere.