Say Bye to Those Awesomely Clackety Train Station Displays
You hear it before you see it—the whirring clack of plastic flaps as they turn over to display a new set of numbers and letters. For more than three decades, a mechanical flip board made by the Italian company Solari has guided passengers as they travel through Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, but things are about to sound (and look) a lot different. The station is the latest, and among the last in the country, to ditch its Solari board for a newer, quieter digital departures screen.
No big deal—a departures board is a departures board, right? Not if you ask Philly travelers:
This makes me flippin’ mad: https://t.co/5UvgvzVDlH
— David Boardman (@dlboardman) August 25, 2016
Irrational? Perhaps. But the Solari board @ 30th St is so cool. I’d hoped to show my nieces & nephews… oh well. 😞 https://t.co/9mCYwzZjgq
— Ebony Elizabeth (@Ebonyteach) August 26, 2016
Over the years, Solari boards have become beloved pieces of urban infrastructure. Much like the clock at Manhattan’s Grand Central or the marquee on an old movie theater, they serve as a charmingly analog landmarks that conjure some imagined idyllic past. The boards are an intricate construction of moving parts. Every character you see is part of a module that has 40 plastic flaps with the letters A through Z, numbers 0 through 9, and a few useful symbols. Those modules are controlled by software-run step motors that spin the flaps around like a Rolodex until they land on the character needed to help spell out the information. “It’s a very mechanical system,” says Joe DeCarlo, Solari’s general manager in New York City. Those mechanics are the reason the board makes its beloved clacking sound.
DeCarlo explains that a few decades ago, Solari boards could be found in the majority of Amtrak train stations. Today, Philadelphia is one of the last remaining US stations to use the flappety signs. It makes sense. Now we have phones to tell us where to go and when—the new digital screens in train stations and airports are just an extension of our personal devices. DeCarlo says he’s watched his company move away from the transit business and into personalized signs for bars and restaurants. “The nostalgic look isn’t what transit is looking for,” he says. “They’re looking for more function over form.”
There’s good reason for this. What a digital board lacks in charm, it makes up for in efficiency. “It’s not just the board—it’s the system,” says Mike Tolbert of Amtrak. Philadelphia’s current Solari board runs on … Windows 95. “The Philly board probably has printed circuits that were developed in the 1960s,” DeCarlo says. Charming, but not exactly reliable. A digital board is more dynamic and flexible. It’s able to display updates to gates and delays in real time. The station can stream safety videos or sporting events. “You couldn’t put that on a flap sign, that’s for sure,” DeCarlo says. The visuals, too, are clearer and designed with disabilities in mind. By all accounts, a digital screen is the better screen. And yet, people still yearn for the analog Solari boards.
The next incarnation of Philadelphia’s departures board is currently in the design stage, so it’s unclear exactly what will replace the Solari board. DeCarlo says some stations, like in Secaucas, New Jersey, are opting for video screens that look and sound like a vintage Solari boards—a video animation mimics the spinning plastic flaps while a speaker plays the familiar clacking sound. DeCarlo figures more stations might go this route, as a way to balance nostalgia with practicality. It’s not a perfect replication, he says, “but it does the trick.”