STAMFORD -- Ridership on Metro-North's New Haven Line increased in March, ending 15 straight months of declines and possibly pointing to a larger economic recovery, according to recently released figures.

"These aren't yet the salad days of four or five percent increases a month, but things are moving in a better direction," said Jay Fiegerman, director of marketing analysis and policy for Metro-North Railroad.

From March 2009 to March 2010, New Haven Line ridership rose from 3.09 million to 3.15 million, a 1.8 percent increase. That followed a 1.4 percent decrease between February 2010 and the previous year, when ridership went from 2.63 million to 2.60 million.

In 2009, ridership dropped from 37.8 million to 36.3 million, with ridership losses of 4 to 5 percent a month persisting from late 2008 until last December, when ridership was off 1.6 percent, said Bob MacLagger, vice president of planning for Metro-North Railroad.

MacLagger said ridership on Metro-North's Harlem and Hudson lines continues to be down about one percent from January 2010 through March 2010, a relative rebound from drops in the preceding months of 4 to 5 percent.

"We'd been seeing the trend moving back toward zero for a few months until now. We're seeing slight growth overall in our system for the first time in 15 months," MacLagger said. "We're not going to rush to judgment based on one month to say a recovery is here, but when April is reported, we expect to see positive numbers on the New Haven Line."

New Haven Line ridership reached a record high of 38.2 million riders in 2008, a 3.7 percent increase that coincided with sharp increases in gasoline prices.

In July 2008, ridership grew 6.2 percent, as gas prices reached $4.50 or higher a gallon.

While the financial and other white-collar jobs lost in the 2008-09 recession have not yet been replaced, New York City has seen possible signals of a rebound for those jobs each month this year as the number of business and professional services jobs has increased each month this year, said Elena Volovelsky, a senior economist for the New York State Department of Labor's Manhattan office.

Jobs in the business and professional services category are considered related to the financial industry and include accountants, information technology staff, lawyers and landscaping crews. A resurgence in those jobs shows new spending by companies that ultimately could expand their own staffs, Volovelsky said.

As a result of renewed hiring for business and professional service jobs, the city narrowed the number of those jobs lost from 24,000 between December 2008 and 2009 to 14,900 fewer jobs between March 2009 and March 2010, Volovelsky said.

The number of financial services jobs continued to decline in March from 441,200 last year to 421,900 this year, Volovelsky said.

"We had pretty strong results in the professional and business services category, especially in March," Volovelsky said. "Those are jobs that reflect businesses that sell services to other businesses and usually improves before hiring for financial and white-collar jobs do."

The overall unemployment rate in the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk area fell from 9.2 percent to 8.7 percent, with the unemployment rate falling in 19 of the 20 cities and towns in the region, said Jo Shute, executive vice president of Bridgeport-based The WorkPlace Inc., which administers federally and state-funded job training programs in the region.

Overall employment in the region in business and professional service jobs increased by 1,000 from February to March, rising from 58,200 to 59,200, Shute said.

Financial services jobs increased modestly from 42,600 in January 2010 to 42,900 in March, Shute said, still well below the peak over the past five years of 46,200 in July 2007.

"We have a ways to go to recover to where we were, but we're headed in the right direction," Shute said. "There is a little bit of a build in employment."

Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, said that while he still sees more empty seats on peak-hour trains than before the recession, the ridership increase could be a cause for optimism about the economy.

"It's encouraging certainly that ridership is coming back because I think most of the ridership that we lost were people who weren't riding the trains because they didn't have jobs in New York City anymore," Cameron said.