At ;0:08 a.m. on Monday, by the count of the deteriorated-but-still-ticking split-flap sign at the center of 30th Street Station, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle told reporters he believed a deal to preserve the look of the sign, which Amtrak had intended to swap out for a digital replacement, was likely.
Boyle had just come from a meeting with representatives from the Preservation Alliance and the Disability Rights Network; Dave Handera, Amtrak’s vice president of stations, properties, and accessibility; and the chief executive of Oat Foundry, a Bridesburg-based company that has installed split-flap signs all over the world and is developing one for the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
“This sign unfortunately does not appear to be ADA-compliant, and that’s a goal I share," said Boyle, a Democrat representing parts of Philadelphia. "But as I expressed to them, we need not create a false choice.”
Amtrak did not make a firm commitment, he conceded, but he was nonetheless optimistic. “Frankly, as someone who works on appropriations for Amtrak, they have every incentive to continue to work with us,” he added.
In a statement, however, Amtrak indicated it’s still on track to replace the sign this month — but remains open to long-term conversations.
"We continue progressing toward a January installation of our new and improved system; however, during this time we are happy to discuss alternatives for consideration during the upcoming master development process. We will keep an open dialogue with the congressman and the local community as we work to provide a modern and universally accessible station experience.”
According to Boyle, Amtrak will meet again with Oat Foundry this week to review a proposal to create a sign that is more clearly legible, and therefore in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. In the interim, he said, he was urging Amtrak not to follow through with plans to take down the old sign, made by the Italian company Solari in 1971, and replace it with televisions as an interim measure. Boyle noted that, as the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, the sudden urgency of updating the sign seemed unclear.
Mark Kuhn, Oat Foundry’s chief executive, said his company can create a sign that matches the styling of the old sign and its familiar clickety-clack, but also integrates with Amtrak’s systems to give real-time track data and provides alerts about train boarding.
“It would still have that authentic electro-mechanical flapping sound,” he said.
Kuhn said it would likely take three to six months to develop the sign. He described the price point as “certainly more than TVs, but they’re much less than the long-term cost of having a breaking-down sign all the time.”
For many of those who pass through the station regularly, it’s welcome news. Online petitions calling for the preservation of the sign have been circulating for months.
“It’s just a great tradition,” said Marilyn Hauser, 59, of Center City, whose commute to work in Brooklyn begins with the soundtrack of the classic sign.
Heidi Mann, 54, of Charlestown, N.H., stopped to take video.
“I make signage for a living, so I’m really aware, and I love that sign," she said, citing the clarity of information it provides and the reprieve from digital screens. "I don’t see why you would change it.”
Looking further ahead, Boyle said he had encouraged Amtrak to make the installation of a new split-flap sign part of the $100 million redevelopment initiative already scheduled for 30th Street Station.
“I believe this can be a win for everybody, and we can preserve part of what makes 30th Street Station so special ... and not go down the tragic path New York went with its Penn Station that in no way compares to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station," he said.