The iconic split-flap departures board at 30th Street, which elicited a public outcry when Amtrak dismantled it last month, will be returning to the station as a permanent fixture, officials say.
Amtrak is currently soliciting proposals for a major overhaul to what is officially called William H Gray III 30th Street Station. A new requirement has been inserted into the RFP for the $37 million improvement project for the developer to “utilize the Solari Board as part of the master development,” a spokesperson told Billy Penn.
How the analog board will be integrated in the decor of the grand 1933 Neoclassical building is still unknown; Amtrak wants developers to propose what they think is the best use for the relic.
The Italian-made Solari board, which was installed in the 1970s, made a satisfying clickety-clack noise as it updated boarding and gate information. It was the last of its kind along Amtrak train lines and was taken out of operation at the end of January. It’s currently being stored for safekeeping at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
Its intended replacement, a large “video wall” that will be connected to each gate’s individual display, will take a bit of time to install.
After existing wiring is replaced with fiber optics, the screens will be put in place, followed by software testing and personnel training, Amtrak said. The new system “is expected to be completed by March.”
Inability to bring the Solari board into compliance with ADA standards was the reason it was removed, Amtrak confirmed.
Currently, its temporary replacement is nothing but a relatively puny regular flatscreen TV. Asked whether that interim display was ADA-compliant, officials did not provide an answer.
Audio and visual upgrades for ADA compliance
Per officials, neither hearing-impaired nor vision-impaired passengers were being accessibly served by the Solari board.
On the first point: the board wasn’t integrated with 30th Street’s public address system, so some changes that were indicated visually were not delivered via audio. On the second, the font used on the flipping letters was was hard to view from a distance or for those with less-than-good vision.
Refurbishing stations to become fully ADA-compliant is a project Amtrak started several years ago. It has since overhauled and replaced the split-flap boards at New York’s Penn Station and along the entire Metro North line.
When disability advocates heard about the push Philadelphians were making to keep the mechanical board in place — there were multiple online petitions that garnered more than 2,500 signatures — they contacted Amtrak to double down on their pleas.
“After hearing that some want to keep the Solari Board, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) reached out to Amtrak and urged us to replace the current sign to be compliant with ADA,” a spokesperson said.
Amtrak’s new digital display will be fully compatible with ADA laws because it will be integrated into the PA system and use ADA-compliant fonts. It will also be able to show secondary messages that address safety and security.
Local manufacturing firm Oat Foundry has offered to create a modern version of a split-flap board for 30th Street.
The modules are larger than Solari’s, which offer a greater viewing distance, and they can be customized with ADA compliant fonts and colors, a company spokesperson explained. They can also be integrated with public address systems and with Amtrak’s control loop feedback mechanisms, which would enable the text-to-speech feature and reliably convey data.
Amtrak has discussed the option with Oat Foundry, but there’s been no indication it will move forward.