STAMFORD -- After more than a year delay in getting the state's first new M-8 railcars in service, Metro-North Railroad and state transportation officials are facing the question of how to improve reliability of their aging fleet to curb breakdowns next winter.

After a winter in which snow-related breakdowns crippled the New Haven Line's 320-car fleet, Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said a long-range program to rehabilitate older cars is being considered.

The program could take two years to complete, however, having no impact on performance later this year.

Officials are considering the feasibility of other ways to bolster the fleet, including acquiring other train equipment if possible, Redeker said.

"We haven't really made a final decision yet, but it would be a couple of years before we would see the benefit of a critical systems replacement program," Redeker said this week. "But even with the program it would not be able to provide any refurbished cars for next winter, so we're trying to work out an approach."

Going forward, the state DOT and Metro-North Railroad would first consider a comprehensive overhaul of the youngest group of existing railcars, the state's 48 M-6 cars that were built in 1994 and 1995, according to the DOT. Early last decade, the state funded a $150 million critical systems replacement program that rehabilitated 146 of the 235 M-2 railcars in the fleet that helped nearly double their reliability in the time since, Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart said.

"It's been a tremendous program that has paid for itself several times over in performance," Rodney Chabot, a New Canaan member of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council.

In 2010, the 30-plus year old M-2 cars in the program travelled an average of 113,115 miles without mechanical problems, compared to the 89 that didn't and averaged about 73,817 miles between repairs.

The program, begun in 2003, replaced motors, braking and electrical systems and other components of those M-2 cars, as well as cosmetic improvements like seat replacements, Everhart said.

Assuming that expectations that 80 to 100 of the new M-8 railcars being in service by December 2011, and the cars run trouble free, Connecticut DOT Supervisor of Rail Operations Eugene Colonese said Metro-North could maintain the minimum of 262 cars it needs to run a normal schedule at any one time during next winter.

During an average winter, Metro-North repair shops average about 60 cars out of service, Colonese said.

So far, 16 of the 26 M-8 cars delivered by Kawasaki Rail Car Corp. to the state have been put in service, Colonese said.

"With the new M-8 cars it should be enough to keep us going and reduce the shop count," Colonese said.

Gary Fremont, a Springdale commuter, said that he felt the railroad and state should pursue whatever means it could to avoid a repeat of the car shortages that resulted in a reduced schedule with shorter trains, though acknowledged that service suspensions during the harshest weather were all but unavoidable.

"We should start seeing an improvement in service," Fremont said. "I've been looking forward to riding the new cars and hope they can maintain the fleet."

Members of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, a state appointed watchdog group also said that they supported the idea of a critical systems replacement program for either or both the M-4 or M-6 fleets to provide some assurance reliable cars will be available.

"I think it makes sense because if we have any further delays in the delivery of the M-8's, car shortages will be problematic for the next couple of winters," said rail council Chairman Jim Cameron. "While it takes a while to get it up and running, I think it would end up netting us with a larger and better fleet to rely on for years to come."

In December, the DOT and Metro-North Railroad announced they'd scratched a planned 2010 debut of the first set of M-8 cars to resolve various software glitches impacting the propulsion and computer driven diagnostic system of the new cars.

From December through mid-February New Haven Line commuters experienced two months in which between one-third to one-half of the state's M-2, M-4, and M-6 fleet were out of service for repairs caused by blowing snow and harsh weather conditions.

"It's definitely worth considering getting the critical systems replacement program up and running again," Terri Cronin, vice chairwoman of the body said. "Even if we have the number of new cars they say we will it will not help us if we have problems like we did this winter."

At the same time Metro-North Railroad is in the process of seeking bids from companies to begin scrapping M-2 cars, starting with the group of cars that were not revamped.

Redeker said that the pace of retiring old cars will depend on how quickly the new M-8 cars arrive to help bolster the New Haven Line's seating capacity.

"When we will begin retiring cars is not settled," Redeker said.