Adding a Dash of Style to the Daily Shuffle

NEWARK -- Rolling stock.

It doesn't sound pretty, and if you ask some of the 340,000 people who ride New Jersey Transit's trains and buses every day, it isn't a pretty experience, according to the New York Times.

It's not just the fact that trains between New Jersey and New York have become unbearably crowded since the destruction of the World Trade Center knocked out a critical leg of the PATH network and displaced 66,000 commuters. It's just that the nation's second-largest transit system, cobbled together from a web of failing rail and bus companies in the late 1970's, lacks a coherent look or panache, a certain je ne sais quoi.

Put more bluntly, the 611 trains and 2,065 buses that crisscross the Garden State are little more than steel-sided boxes on wheels, adequately comfortable but as inviting as a junior high school cafeteria.

The exteriors of the newest cars, introduced in 1994, are painted a dreary mix of black and gray. The overhead fluorescent lighting is viciously unkind.

"They look O.K. but they're nothing to write home about," Frank Mitchell, a 45-year-old lawyer, said last week as he boarded the 6:49 p.m. train from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan to Newark. "They wouldn't win any design awards, that's for sure."

If Cesar Vergara has his way, New Jersey's rolling stock may one day win international awards, not to mention the undying affection of its long- suffering ridership. Mr. Vergara, one of the nation's best-known industrial designers, was hired by New Jersey Transit six months ago to turn a nice transportation system into a stylistic knockout. He will start with the locomotives and extend his vision to everything from passenger cars, signs and schedules to the agency's proposed transit villages -- integrated mixes of housing and stores that will one day rise alongside five of its suburban rail stations.

"We want to create a mass transit system so cool, we won't be able to sell tickets fast enough," said Jeffrey A. Warsh, New Jersey Transit's executive director, who hired Mr. Vergara. "People are going to say, `We want those trains and buses in our community.' It will inspire the grass roots, and it will inspire the legislators who fund the system."

It is an ambitious plan that envisions a rail network to rival those in Europe. By hiring Mr. Vergara, public transport experts say, New Jersey Transit has become the first agency in the country with an in-house chief designer, someone who will oversee every element of a $1 billion system that carries 224 million people a year.

"There's no reason a train should not be comfortable to ride and beautiful to look at," said Bill Vantuono, the editor of Railway Age, a New York-based trade journal. "People who spend two hours a day commuting deserve something better than a cattle car. It's a stunning move by New Jersey Transit, hopefully one that will serve as a precedent for the rest of the country."

It may take several years before most passengers see the fruits of Mr. Vergara's design work, although those who travel through Pennsylvania Station in Newark can see an architectural flourish that he recently added to one passageway that once featured a slapdash mural of buses and trains. Mr. Vergara installed a photographic trompe l'oeil that appears to be some long obscured feature of the architects McKim, Mead & White's art deco.

And bus passengers in Bergen County have been jolted by another bit of Vergara whimsy: an exterior paint scheme that wildly reinterprets New Jersey Transit's traditional orange, magenta and navy chevron. (Not everyone is thrilled with the paint job, including Mr. Warsh, who stresses that it is only experimental.)

Yet another rendition of the agency's pastel palette will appear later this year on 200 new passenger train cars. Although those cars were already in production when Mr. Vergara arrived, he is working on a new diesel locomotive that harkens back to the great era of railroading, when American icons like the 20th Century Limited and the Hiawatha were household names.

While transportation watchdogs complain about the 10 percent fare increase the agency is planning for later this year, they are hailing the creation of a design director post. "If you design something that wows people, it will become irresistible, something that people feel good about investing in," said Len Resto, president of the New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers.

Transit officials, mindful that the public might view the promise of cleaner lines and kinder lighting as somewhat frivolous, stress that Mr. Vergara's beautification campaign won't cost taxpayers anything extra, beyond his $140,000 a year salary. In fact, Mr. Warsh said that having Mr. Vergara on staff would save money that would otherwise be spent on consultants.

"We didn't bring Cesar in here to say, `More fabric, I need more fabric,' " Mr. Warsh said. "He's just going to inject his aesthetic into the existing process."

Not that the introduction of a style czar has been entirely wrinkle free, especially among the old guard engineers and architects who rarely stray from the "form follows function" concept. Mr. Vergara admitted that he raised hackles when he redesigned a vehicular overpass in Secaucus made of concrete slabs, transforming it into a graceful bridge that seems to float on sweeping red arches. "It's a facade, of sorts, but it didn't cost any more to do," he said, sitting in his office, which overlooks the tracks at Penn Station in Newark. "If I may be so bold, it is about good taste versus bad taste, and I have the tools to inject good taste into the system."

Mr. Vergara's bold ideas have been adopted by the French -- the new generation of high-speed AGV trains are his. In the Pacific Northwest, he helped remake the Amtrak Cascades, which runs between Oregon and British Columbia, giving the first and last cars a giant set of tail fins. Jeffrey Schultz, who runs rail operations for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said that since their introduction in 1998, the distinctive fins and dazzling interiors have helped raise ridership by 10 percent a year.

Despite a successful career as a consultant and a two-hour, two-train and one-subway trip to work from his home in Connecticut, Mr. Vergara said he was lured to New Jersey by the prospect of orchestrating the look and feel of an entire transportation system. "This is," he said, "an industrial designer's dream come true."

Boyish and ebullient, Mr. Vergara, 45, a native of Mexico, can make something as mundane as a ventilation shaft sound exciting when he speaks. He feels particularly passionate about train restrooms. He said, "If you got in there and there was a shelf for your cellphone, your coat didn't get stuck in the door, there wasn't water everywhere and you didn't look in the mirror and say, `I look dead' because the lighting is so bad, then I've done my job well."

Cynics may wonder whether suburbia's commuting herds will even notice the difference. Mr. Vergara has this ready reply: "Do you think people in Rome or Paris are more sophisticated than people in New Jersey? No. It's the environment that's more sophisticated, and we hope we can do the same here, little by little."