Philly train station's iconic flipping departures board will be replaced
August 26, 2016 6:33 AM   Subscribe

Philadelphia's 30th Street Station is home to one of the few remaining "split-flap display" departure boards. The flipping, clicking board, which is managed on four desktop computers running Windows 95, will soon be replaced by a digital display. Other stations' split-flap display boards have been replaced by digital displays that try and mimic the look and sounds of the original. Aficionados and nostalgics, take note: the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg may be acquiring 30th Street's board. Interested in seeing a split-flap board in action before they're all gone? Wikipedia has a list of remaining boards around the world.
posted by duffell (61 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
There a documentary of how these work here.
posted by Dr and Mrs Eaves at 6:40 AM on August 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


.
I was saddened when Newark Penn replaced theirs.
posted by fings at 6:41 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


I understand why this needs to be replaced but also HARD BOO
posted by MCMikeNamara at 6:42 AM on August 26, 2016 [13 favorites]


nooooooooooo
posted by nev at 6:44 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


The departure board in NYC is being replaced, also. But it wasn't as cool as the one in Philadelphia, though.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:48 AM on August 26, 2016


.

I haven't been in 30th St. for decades (and haven't been in the bathrooms there since I saw Witness), but this makes me sad.
Couldn't something be done via historic preservation?
(I mean, if Win95 is still running it, it qualifies as historic)
posted by MtDewd at 6:53 AM on August 26, 2016


I was really bummed when they replaced the on in South Station a few years ago. The one in 30th St. Station is really something else, though. It's not necessarily the board itself, but how it interacts with the building itself. The station building is a marvelous old train station, enormous ceilings, really beautiful acoustics. You can hear that sign clacking anywhere you're standing in the main room, and it really provides a sense of things happening around you.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:57 AM on August 26, 2016 [11 favorites]


JE REFUSE
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 6:58 AM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


When the MBTA replaced the Solari board in South Station in Boston with an electronic board, they kept the tick-tick-tick sound as the board updates.
posted by adamg at 7:00 AM on August 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


The split -flap display was the best part of arriving in Philadelphia by train and the sound is so. So. Soothing. It's like a white noise machine that tells you when your train arrives.

Stupid small pleasures being upgraded out of existence.
posted by The Whelk at 7:01 AM on August 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


Boo. I was just passing through the other week with the kiddo, and he was fascinated by it.
posted by carter at 7:03 AM on August 26, 2016


A Strasburg meet-up will be in order.

Oh, the echoing click-click-click-click-click...

.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:04 AM on August 26, 2016


noooooo

at least we still have Trenton
posted by rorgy at 7:05 AM on August 26, 2016


I spend a lot of time in 30th Street and it is not hyperbole to say that sound is embedded in my soul. I'll miss it very much.
posted by ariadne's threadspinner at 7:06 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


at least we still have Trenton

That phrase has never before been spoken in the history of mankind.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:12 AM on August 26, 2016 [15 favorites]


Nooooooooo! I am sympathetic to the software issues, but I wish they could keep the board. I love 30th St Station and love the sound of that board.
posted by desuetude at 7:19 AM on August 26, 2016


Too bad. The sound is a big part of the appeal. That museum in Stasburg is worth a trip right now. If they get the sign even more so.
posted by fixedgear at 7:21 AM on August 26, 2016


My father worked for Amtrak. During his vacation week every year, he would take me into 30th Street Station so he could pick up his paycheck. Then we'd get an order of fries from McDonalds, sit in that beautiful building and watch the board for a little bit.

Even though I completely understand why, it's another small piece of Philadelphia that's going away and that makes me sad. I hope the new one replicates it as well as it can.
posted by kimberussell at 7:30 AM on August 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


at least we still have Trenton

That phrase has never before been spoken in the history of mankind.


I was about to say the same thing, but googling reveals it has been said exactly once before, albeit in reference to a boxer named, improbably, Trenton Titsworth.
posted by duffell at 7:32 AM on August 26, 2016 [12 favorites]


The RN74 restaurants have these to post wine specials in SF and Seattle.
http://www.wac6.com/wac6/2011/06/split-flap-display-at-rn74.html
posted by bitdamaged at 7:32 AM on August 26, 2016


.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 7:33 AM on August 26, 2016


Guess we're gonna have to have a 30th Street Station commemorative IRL meetup?

Not even sure how that would work, but something about lurking about a big train station for a day sounds really damn fun to me.
posted by rorgy at 7:40 AM on August 26, 2016


When they changed the board in Boston, they kept the sound. Now South Station plays a recording of tiles clicking and flipping and the board digitally updates you to tell you your commuter rail train has been cancelled.

On Preview: As adamg noted.
posted by maryr at 7:43 AM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Guess we're gonna have to have a 30th Street Station commemorative IRL meetup?

Not even sure how that would work, but something about lurking about a big train station for a day sounds really damn fun to me.


Post an Ask soliciting ideas for what to do on the meetup, then post the event to IRL. Afterward, be sure to post pictures to MetaTalk. Let's just blanket the site with split-flap display goodness. Maybe someone can sample the split-flap clickety-clack in a MeFiMusic track.
posted by duffell at 7:43 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Make it a PokeMeetup.
posted by maryr at 7:44 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:47 AM on August 26, 2016


My first alarm clock that my parents gave me as a kid had one of these displays. (Much less elaborate though, obviously.) I still think they're pretty neat. All that old-school electromechanical stuff had a lot of charm to it, even though in a lot of ways it was considerably less functional than the fully electronic replacements that have taken over the world in the last couple of decades.

I feel like flappy displays (And nixie tubes! Can I get a little nixie tube love in here?) are interesting enough that they deserve to keep being made. I mean, we still make dial displays for clocks all the time, despite digital ones being better in pretty much every way from a purely utilitarian standpoint. Split-flap displays have a really nice aesthetic and I bet there'd be an enduring market for them if they were paired with complementary design and built into objects that were intended to be both functional and decorative.

Why do we have to stop making them just because digital is cheaper?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:55 AM on August 26, 2016


I get why they're replacing it, and replacing it is almost certainly the right call given the budget and technical constraints at work here, but I'm still saddened that it's happening. Hearing the clack and watching that board flip are some of my strongest memories of 30th Street Station, and by proxy of a great many trips at different parts of my life. It will be a loss, if a necessary one, and I find myself wishing that we spend enough on infrastructure that we could afford to retain this bit of old-fashioned display, or else update it, somehow, for the future.
posted by cjelli at 8:10 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Do any Indy-based MeFites know if Banker's Life Fieldhouse still has the big split-flap board in the entry area? Obviously, it didn't display arrivals/departures. It displayed upcoming events and, I suppose, any information deemed necessary.
Obviously, it's been ages since I was down there.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:12 AM on August 26, 2016


Maryr and adamg mention that when Boston's South Station took down their Solari board, they aded recorded flapping. This wasn't just nostalgia -- I was surprised when I used to visit South Station how many people would check the sign, stand 30 feet away engrossed in a newspaper or book, and sprint for the platforms when they heard the next set of updates flapping overhead, without even looking up at the sign again.

Having worked in the sign industry with transit agencies, these signs were the equivalent of a steam train -- pretty and historical, but crazy fiddly for an everyday utility. Properly designed digital boards add the ability to use color, logos, animation, and dynamic formatting (larger typefaces if you have fewer trains), and can be updated for new station names, route numbers, and platforms (etc.) in an instant without manufacturing.
posted by SubterraneanRedStateBlues at 8:16 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


A story of my life seems to be the death of mechanical things.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:18 AM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


The sound was a beautiful design feature. When you heard the flit-flit-flit-tff-tff-tff, you knew to look at the board. If the board was silent you didn't need to keep glancing at it. It also takes me back to being three years old, waiting at Abbotsinch Airport with my mum for my dad's plane home from Dublin to arrive …
posted by scruss at 8:46 AM on August 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


The departure board in NYC is being replaced, also.

I'm very sentimental about the NYC board, having spent a lot of my life staring at it. In fact I would buy a piece of it if I could.

North Station in Boston also has a fake flip-clip recording, but infuriatingly, and for reasons I can't understand, the recording plays at odd intervals even when the information on the board does not change. We're so Pavlovian about the board that I can't help but look, and when there is no change, I just want to scream. That and the reverberating intonations of Morgan Freeman (or whoever it is) only add to North Station's status as a textbook examplesof hostile design.
posted by Miko at 8:55 AM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


When they changed the board in Boston, they kept the sound. Now South Station plays a recording of tiles clicking and flipping and the board digitally updates you to tell you your commuter rail train has been cancelled.

It annoys me no end that the ones at North Station don't have any sound effects.
posted by briank at 8:58 AM on August 26, 2016


I can totally see the appeal of the old flippy board, but emulating the flapping and especially emulating the split-text look on the digital boards is just ridiculously dumb and kitschy. That newfangled Newark board looks like a dog's breakfast. It would be a superior design - it would be easier to read - if less effort had been wasted trying to make it look like the old boards.

The digital designs should play to the strengths of the media. That's what the flippy boards did.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:14 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


When the MBTA replaced the Solari board in South Station in Boston with an electronic board, they kept the tick-tick-tick sound as the board updates.

Something about this fact makes me want to weep for America and the way we do things.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:14 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


To be fair only *one* Win95 box is used to update the old display, the other three are for monitoring trains.

According to a 2009 article about Union Station the maintenance (contract?) for the old signs costs at least $971/month (per sign? dunno). A more recent article claims that the signs cost about 250k each. You'd need the displays to have a 20-year lifespan to break even. I bet Solari is just reselling Daktronics or similar LED displays at a huge markup, and profits from getting rid of their technicians since these displays don't have very much that can be repaired.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:23 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Peach at 9:23 AM on August 26, 2016


(I assumed Solari was the vendor of the new displays, but can't confirm. Since the one at 30th Street is in the "design phase" sounds like maybe not. I wonder what fresh hell of software maintenance they'll unwittingly sign up for; a Windows 95 app is a dream compared to the hairshirts developers clothe their customers in nowadays)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:34 AM on August 26, 2016


It annoys me no end that the ones at North Station don't have any sound effects.

it does - that's what I was posting about above. It's just that they play it at complete random, irrespective of whether the track time is changing, so the association is lost.
posted by Miko at 9:36 AM on August 26, 2016


the flipping board at the sf ferry building is one of my favorite things about taking the ferry. i just looked it up and i had no idea it was installed so recently! i guess i have a terrible memory but in any case i'm glad it's there. it's really weirdly soothing
posted by burgerrr at 9:54 AM on August 26, 2016


Now all they gotta do is fix SEPTA revolving door of screw-ups and they might be onto something.
posted by prepmonkey at 10:03 AM on August 26, 2016


You can hear that sign clacking anywhere you're standing in the main room

I can hear it in my head just reading this.

.
posted by scalefree at 10:14 AM on August 26, 2016


WINDOWS 95???? How the hell did that still work?
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:37 AM on August 26, 2016


Mario Batali's pizzeria Otto in NYC uses a flip board in the bar area to tell waiting diners when their table is ready – it's a lovely touch.
posted by nicwolff at 10:42 AM on August 26, 2016


The current sign just fits so well in 30th St station. Even though I only rarely take Amtrak, I will be sad to see it go.
posted by nolnacs at 10:44 AM on August 26, 2016


When I was in undergrad, I used to take the train between New Haven (home) to Philadelphia (school) any time except at the beginning and end of the year. Going to 30th St and having the SAME freakishly calming NOISE and same sign was one of those kind of satisfactorily uniform things that said 'hey, you're gonna have a calm trip.'

New Haven put ours in a museum in 2014 - and we raised hell about it here, too. (It lasted longer than the 2011 estimated date this article gives.)
posted by cobaltnine at 11:00 AM on August 26, 2016


when in the station i was always annoyed by how "slow" the flappy things were. but i still appreciated the visual appeal and the nostalgia factor. it is quite a unique sound.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:29 AM on August 26, 2016


The flipboard at Montparnasse! I had teams in Rennes while on my previous project in Paris, so got to see it in action several times :) it's really neat. Possibly the most interesting thing about Montparnasse. /Parisian burrrrrrn
posted by fraula at 11:37 AM on August 26, 2016


I was soooo disappointed when Mr dbmcd and I made our first trip through Milan together on a train. 27 years ago, I had the distinct pleasure (?) of seeing *all* of the times click to "0:00" as a strike commenced. Much consternation in Italian commenced on my train - but all we could do was wait. Not that I wanted my husband to see them all go to 0:00, but the Milan train station is so huge, and to see that massive board essentially empty itself was amazing.
Now, it's digital. Sigh.
posted by dbmcd at 12:07 PM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


LCD video screens show boring blank boxes or colored squares when they fail.

Broken split-flap displays lead the mind on fanciful imaginary journeys to "Loodon Deathrow" and "Prag".
posted by tss at 12:33 PM on August 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


I know it's a selfish form of nostalgia, but those flip boards have been the background noise for so much of my life: the sound of coming back to college after Thanksgiving, takeaway boxes refilled with slices of pie; waiting for a boyfriend who kept picking me up at the train station long enough to become a husband; a run in the bitter January darkness to catch the last train back to campus; eating slightly dubious black and white cookies that never seemed to make it past Trenton. It's the sound of eighty people in suits trampling the concourse to get to the newly-assigned velvet ropes of the Northeast Regional, the sound of wondering just how insane it would be to run away on the Palmetto line and ride the rails to the south. Next they'll take away those wooden pews that seem designed to have curves just to spill unenlightened cups of coffee, or the rope lines that suggest a modicum of decorum. They can make an app for the sound, but that's not the point.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:42 PM on August 26, 2016 [14 favorites]


The station I use every day for my commute has these on the platforms and the departure board, I never thought of them as endangered. (It's not listed on that Wikipedia page, of course.) I'm going to start noticing them now.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:30 PM on August 26, 2016


Flip‐disc displays are kind of a similar technology. Instead of having 40+ characters to flip through, they have two states, and a few dozen dots are used per letter. Here’s a video of one up‐close.

They’re doing better than split‐flap displays, but not great.
posted by Fongotskilernie at 2:54 PM on August 26, 2016


tss, the cover frame of that video is a great album cover as-is.
posted by a halcyon day at 5:01 PM on August 26, 2016


That's too bad, I didn't even know they still had any of those in the US :( When I lived in Germany I had a regional job that required me to fly out of Frankfurt Airport one or twice a month. Watching the giant flip board in the departures lobby refresh while I waited in the Lufthansa check in line (and listening to that whirrrr...clackclackclack) was always kind of a highlight for me. I always wondered how it was controlled - will definitely have to check out the video upthread later.
posted by photo guy at 5:49 PM on August 26, 2016


Guess we're gonna have to have a 30th Street Station commemorative IRL meetup

There's a bar there that serves deep-fried pickles, so, yes!
posted by mothershock at 5:55 PM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


WINDOWS 95???? How the hell did that still work?

1. Get a PC
2. Install Windows 95 from CD-ROM or floppies
3. Do not connect to internet
4. Profit!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:34 PM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


The one at Baltimore Penn Station was there last time I checked. Damn I love these. Had no idea they were even hooked up to a computer; I was picturing some sort of legacy clockwork mechanism.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:22 PM on August 28, 2016


Huh on preview Wikipedia claims it was replaced by an LED one back in 2010. Either my memory is faulty or something else is . . .
posted by aspersioncast at 9:23 PM on August 28, 2016


A web version of the Amtrak Solari Board from Penn Station (so satisfying). Via this NYT piece. I had no idea the current board was actually a replacement of the Solari board, it's LED, put in in 2000, but already obsolete.
posted by Miko at 7:28 AM on August 30, 2016


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