At Penn Station, the sign no longer goes clackety-clack

Arrivals and departures to be reported on electronic sign

  • Travelers will no longer check the old mechanical sign for their trains. It was replaced to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and because it was difficult to maintain.
Travelers will no longer check the old mechanical sign for their… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
March 22, 2010|By Michael Dresser |

It's a whole lot quieter in Penn Station these days - no whirring sounds, no clickety-clack of an old-fashioned, mechanical signboard bringing the news that your train is 20 minutes late.

In place of the iconic board above the main desk at Baltimore's Amtrak station, there now hangs a large digital board that works intermittently as it undergoes testing. For live information, passengers depend on two small temporary digital screens - miniature versions of what travelers might see listing arrivals and departures at an airport.

In January, Penn Station said goodbye to the old sign - known as a Solari board after the Italian company that introduced the machines in the 1950s. Like so many other familiar inventions of the Industrial Age, the flip-flapping signboards are going the way of the steam engine in rail stations around the world, replaced by digital technology that has taken over everything from wristwatches to phones.

Also edging closer to retirement are the melodic calls by human announcers of the stations served by arriving trains - "Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Princeton, Newark, New York" - soon to be replaced at Penn Station by computer-generated voices.

Some railroad passengers still miss the old sign and find it jarring that the Digital Age has intruded on yet another part of their lives. Julia Clark of Pikesville, proud granddaughter of an engineer on the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad (which railroad buffs will recognize as the predecessor of the Burlington Northern), sees the new sign as one more step toward "a Twitter world."

"It loses the ambience, and this is a wonderful building and modernity is a little jarring," she said. "The clickety-clack seemed to go with the atmosphere - the marble floors, the well-worn wood."

But Martha Hill, dean of the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University, has seen the efficiency of the digital screens installed at the school. To her, that means more than nostalgia.

"I miss it, but I don't regret it and I will get over it very quickly," she said. Informed that the old sign has been moved to a museum, she added: "Terrific. That's good. I'll take my grandsons to look at it."

Baltimore's Solari board is going the way of its counterparts around the world. First introduced at the rail station in Liege, Belgium, in 1956, the company's product became an industry standard in Europe as well as North America.

Gabriella Chiappini, a frequent traveler who was waiting for a train to Washington, said the old boards have disappeared from stations throughout Italy - including Rome, Milan, Turin and her hometown of Bologna. Like those in other parts of Europe, they have been replaced by digital technology, she said.

And that's fine with her.

"I think the world changes, and we just have to follow with it," she said. "The fact that everybody's adopting the same system makes you feel at home when you're not home."

The technological transition is already well under way at Amtrak stations in the United States. Railroad spokeswoman Karina Romero said only two of the old Solari boards remain in place - at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station and in Providence, R.I. The mechanical board at New York's Penn Station has been taken down, she said, and Washington's Union Station has had digital-only signage for years.

Baltimore's Solari board was removed as part of a pilot program involving stations in Baltimore, Aberdeen and New Carrollton, said Amtrak project manager Mike Latiff. As part of the program, Amtrak will try out a technology that integrates the light-emitting diode, or LED, display of schedule information with computer-generated voice announcements.

For now, the visual displays on the big board are working intermittently while the system is being tested, Latiff said. Next to undergo testing will be the broadcast announcements, he said. If all goes well, he said, the new system will replace the temporary digital displays late this month or in early April.

When that happens, a computer system will take over the job of calling out the stations - "Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Princeton, Newark, New York" - a task now distinguished by the individual styles and pronunciation of the announcers. The people who make those calls will be shifted to other customer service duties, Latiff said, and will fill in only during emergencies and when the system is down.

Latiff said the primary reason to replace the old system is to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by providing the visually impaired with vocal notice of changes at the same time the board changes. But he said the new digital signs with LED displays are also more energy-efficient, while the Solari boards are increasingly difficult to maintain - largely because of the cost and difficulty of procuring spare parts. The project is being financed by funds from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill.

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