Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti told commuters Thursday that he couldn't say when the railroad would regain the consistency riders experienced in early 2013, before track maintenance and other issues hobbled the New Haven Line.
But in front of a packed Westport station house, Giulietti did promise that Metro-North would maintain a higher standard of maintenance for tracks and other equipment, and would establish predictable trip times.
Giulietti, who fielded questions from riders and commuter advocates, said the railroad has been doing its best to design a new schedule that would provide reliable service amid the constraints of mandatory speed restrictions on the New Haven Line.
The next step, he said, would be, "How can you make it better?" he said. "The next challenge is, how do we get even more trains, and do that in a reliable fashion going forward?"
Rob Driscoll, a Westport commuter, said that it would be ruinous to communities like Westport, Fairfield and Bridgeport if the railroad can't trim trip times that can extend past 70 minutes in each direction to Grand Central Terminal.
"If we institutionalize our current failures, that is really going to be damaging, in terms of our local economy," Driscoll said. "Why would you move out of the New York area if you think it is going to be a 70-minute-plus train trip, twice a day."
"We can't pretend the problems Metro-North is experiencing are going to fix themselves," said Westport First Selectman Jim Marpey, "but when you realize that the trains are traveling the same speed they did two or three generations ago, you know we have to do better."
According to the railroad, a schedule change that Metro-North hopes to implement next month would result in shorter trip times for more than 80 percent of New Haven Line trains during the morning peak period, and longer trips for only 12 percent of runs.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation is evaluating whether the state should approve the schedule, after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy raised questions last week about whether the New Haven Line should aim for on-time performance of at least 95 percent.
Giulietti said that the competing priorities of speed and safety will continue to be a challenge, most immediately when Metro-North installs positive train control -- a more advanced speed-control technology -- within the next half-decade.
"Every time you put in safety appurtenances that remove the possibility of human error, the beauty of it is, it gets safer and safer," Giulietti said. "But the other side of that is limitations, in terms of frequency of service."
Jennifer Johnson, director of the Westport Transit District, commended the railroad's management for improving on-time performance of trains in recent months, but said that major improvements in trip time need to remain a priority.
"If we could get train trip times between Stamford and Grand Central Terminal down to 30 minutes, that would be incredible," Johnson said. "I want to understand if that is a really a goal."
Giulietti and Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said the New Haven Line's ability to achieve 30-minute service between New Haven and Stamford, and Stamford and Grand Central, would require major and costly infrastructure changes to realign curves and accommodate higher speeds.
The 30-minute goal, Giulietti said, "is very aggressive, most of all between Stamford and Grand Central Terminal. I won't be the one to tell you it is inconceivable, but it is very aggressive."
Giulietti said that the railroad's work to complete a section of catenary upgrades between Southport and Bridgeport and a piece of track in the Bronx, N.Y., by next month is on schedule.
"Everything we're doing is going toward better reliability -- but also (toward) the windows for operational maintenance that we'll need going forward," Giulietti said. "My assumption (that) there had been too much emphasis on on-time performance over safety was probably correct."