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Now Departing: Some of America’s Most Iconic Train Signs

Amtrak will demolish departure boards in Philadelphia and New York

Philadelphia's Solari board is just one casualty of digital technology. (Peter Miller (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

It’s always strangely sad when a piece of pop culture tech becomes obsolete—the demise of, say, VCRs or pay phones is occasion for nostalgic eulogies that call to mind the glory of times gone past. And now it’s time to get ready for another funeral. Soon, not one but two iconic railroad signs will go the way of the dodo, changing the sights and sounds of American transportation forever.

In what feels like news of a mass extinction, travelers in both New York and Philadelphia learned that the signs they rely on to get information on train departures will soon be gone forever. As The New York Times’ Eli Rosenberg reports, the departures board at Pennsylvania Station will be replaced by a series of smaller LCD screens. Similarly, CityLab’s Mimi Kirk writes that the Amtrak arrivals and departures board at the 30th Street railway station in Philadelphia will soon be gone forever.    

There are good reasons for the change. The Philadelphia sign, which is also known as a Solari board due to the name of its Italian manufacturer, has been malfunctioning in recent years and, Kirk reports, relies on parts from defunct boards to function. The sign at Penn Station, writes Rosenberg, is not a clacking “split-flap” board like its Pennsylvania cousin. But the LCD sign, which replaced a Solari board around 2000, has been plagued with blurry letters and blank spaces since its creation.

Though Solari boards remain en vogue in Europe (this list includes functional boards throughout the world), they have been fading in the United States since the advent of LCD technology. Solari nerds regularly make bids to keep the technology from going obsolete, from restoration projects in Canada to a website that lets you experience their glory from your computer screen. Though the board in Penn Station is no Solari, it’s generating its fair share of nostalgia, too.

There was, however, a time before mechanized train station signs. In 1916, an author of a book on electric railways noted that large-and-lettered bulletin boards were used at tracks in American train stations, but that “men or phonographs” were also used. Eventually, Americans became acclimated to live information displays with the help of technology, like the so-called “news zipper” in Times Square, which was introduced in 1928.

Today, it’s just as easy to grab your smartphone to track a train as it is to look up—but the loss of the signs, which have defined the look, feel and human behavior of train stations since they were introduced, will leave a clicking hole in the hearts of travelers. That is, supposing they decide to look up at all.

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