A year after a debilitating winter helped cause a service crisis, a warm, dry winter and a growing number of new train cars in the fleet helped Metro-North Railroad set a record for on-time performance during the first three months of 2012.

Across the Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven lines, the railroad recorded 98.8 percent on-time performance from Jan. 1 through March 31; on the New Haven Line alone, 98.7 percent of trains arrived on time, according to the railroad.

Metro-North categorizes trains arriving at their final destinations less than six minutes after their scheduled arrival times to be punctual.

"I want to extend my congratulations and thanks to all the employees who have worked so hard to provide customers with such excellent service," Metro-North President Howard Permut said in a statement. "It's no wonder our ridership continues to surge."

Metro-North's previous single-quarter record for on-time performance was April through July 2006, when 98.7 percent of trains were on time.

The railroad is running about 1,000 more trains a month than in the first half of 2006, spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.

During the first quarter of 2012, Metro-North also maintained a sufficient number of seats on train runs 99.8 percent of the time.

In January 2011, following a pair of blizzards and numerous heavy snowstorms that damaged equipment, the average number of customers across the New Haven Line left standing on trains during their journey due to a shortage of cars jumped to 447 a day, and to 1,111 each weekday during February 2011, according to Metro-North.

This February, the total number of passengers left standing on the New Haven Line on an average weekday was 20, according to the railroad.

As a growing number of M-8 railcars go into service on the New Haven Line through the rest of the year, officials expect improved on-time performance and having enough seats for all riders to remain par for the course in coming years, Anders said.

By Jan. 1, Metro-North expects to have 192 of a total of 425 M-8 cars in service, Anders said.

"With the retirement of the old fleet and the introduction of almost 200 M-8s by next winter, we'll be in much better shape than two years ago," she said.

Bill Hazelin, a Stamford commuter who usually rides the 8:12 a.m. train, said riding the new M-8 trains has made his daily trips to Manhattan more comfortable. Hazelin said he was looking forward to what he expected to be more consistent air conditioning on the new cars during warm weather.

"Riding the new cars is just night and day compared to what we've had in the past," Hazelin said.

Rodney Chabot, a member of the state-appointed Connecticut Rail Commuter Council who lives in New Canaan, said the growing number of M-8s and the resulting ability to add extra cars to trains makes boarding and off-loading passengers quicker, contributing to overall better on-time performance.

Chabot said while the warm winter was a reprieve for riders and the rail equipment, it also leaves open a crucial test of how the M-8s will operate in a more typical snowy winter.

"We will have to wait another year to see what they will be like in the snow, but the record performance is something to be happy about," Chabot said. "With enough M-8 cars, we saw that most of the trains were full length, which makes it easier to load and unload. All of that adds up to a very successful winter."

martin.cassidy@scni.com, 203-964-2264.