The future arrived at 30th Street Station on Thursday, and it looks a lot like the future everywhere. Amtrak’s new digital information board, which took the place of the much-loved, broken-down, noisy, split-flap board, is bright and easy to read, but also utterly charmless.
The first thing you notice is the silence. There is no musical clickety-clack to draw you toward the information board, no typographical acrobatics to let you know your train has arrived in the station or is running late. Just a bigger version of the screen that sits on your desk, with white sans serif letters flat against a background of artificial-looking sky blue — “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” as William Gibson put it in the opening line of his science fiction classic, Neuromancer.
Overall, the design of the new board is a step up from the one in New York’s Penn Station. Because that screen was left unframed, the color bleeds sloppily over the edges. Philadelphia’s screen has the advantage of being neatly contained within a dark metal border. The contrast between the white letters and blue background — Amtrak’s colors — also means you can read the schedule from the far end of the station’s grand waiting room. Unfortunately, the typography lacks the sophistication of the board in Newark’s station, which uses colors and textures to mimic the look of a split-flap board.
More of a problem is the way the Philadelphia screen has been constructed. It isn’t a single digital expanse, but three separate screens that are stitched together. The seams between the sections disrupt the flow of type, as if the words were hiccuping.
The travelers I spoke to Thursday were not impressed. “It basically sucks,” declared Joshua Novotney, a Philadelphia resident who was waiting near the sign for his train to Washington. “There is nothing wrong with technology,” he continued, “but there was something special about the old sign. It was unique to the station. I miss it already.”
Design flaws aside, Amtrak’s new information board does offer some real benefits, particularly for people with hearing issues. Unlike the split-flap board, which was based on pre-digital technology, the screen has space below the main schedule for real-time information. As trains are announced over the loudspeaker, the words appear simultaneously on the screen. The absence of such audiovisual parity on the old board was a violation of federal disability laws. Amtrak deserves credit for addressing that lapse.
Still, you have to wonder if the railroad could have found a more elegant solution.
It’s not like this board is the only information sign in 30th Street Station. I counted 23 screens in the main waiting room, one of most inspiring rooms in Philadelphia. There is a wall screen at every platform, plus screens for advertising and screens to broadcast security warnings. Not to mention the little screens in every traveler’s hand.
The growing ubiquity of these intrusive, and often redundant, screens is what endeared the old, Italian-made Solari information board to Philadelphians. Originally installed just after Amtrak’s formation in 1971, and updated in 1986, it was a connection to the long history of rail travel in America. It might not have been as historically significant as the magnificent station building, designed in 1927 by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, but its spinning tiles added a jolt of energy to the waiting room. They made you feel you were on your way.
Philadelphia was the last train station in Amtrak’s system to get a digital information screen, and it did not go willingly. When the railroad announced its plans to remove the iconic split-flap board, there was an intense backlash that didn’t let up until the screen was booted up this week.
At the request of U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who represents Northeast Philadelphia and parts of North Philadelphia, Amtrak is exploring the possibility of swapping a modern split-flap board for the new digital screen, an Amtrak spokesperson confirmed Thursday. The replacement would have to meet its technical requirements and satisfy disability guidelines.
Mark Kuhn, the chief executive of Oat Foundry, a Philadelphia company that supplies modern split-flap boards to restaurants and other users, said the firm just submitted technical drawings for Amtrak to review. “They have to vet it for ADA and IT compliance, but we think it will comply,” Kuhn told me. He suggested their product might even be an improvement on the digital board because the contrast is sharper.
Even if Amtrak does acquire a new split-flap board, there is no guarantee that it will be given pride of place in the center of 30th Street Station. A display in a side corridor would be a token gesture, a waste of time and money.
The railroad was also looking at re-installing the original Solari board as a decorative element in the station. Putting that iconic board behind a glass case wouldn’t be very satisfying, either. In the short term, it has been sent to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, according to Amtrak public relations manager Beth K. Toll.
Whatever happens, the saga of the split-flap sign has served a useful purpose. It has reminded Philadelphians just how little control they have over what happens inside the great train station. Over the years, Amtrak has clunked up the magnificent waiting room with advertising signs and information screens. Although ads have unfortunately become necessary to make up the railroad’s funding shortfall, more and more wall space is being covered in banners, with little oversight over the design and placement.
Amtrak crossed a line recently when it blocked up the waiting room’s east windows with an advertising banner. Not only did it reduce the amount of light streaming into the soaring space, the banner created an unfortunate backdrop for one of the most exhilarating pieces of public art in the city: Pennsylvania Railroad’s memorial to railroad workers who died in World War II.
The ad has been taken down, but who knows what’s next. Amtrak is about to revamp the retail portions of the train station. The design of the new digital sign may really be the harbinger of the future.