The iconic, clacking, ’70s-era flipboard at 30th Street Station may not go silent after all.
Amtrak is reconsidering its decision to replace the electromechanical information board with a digital screen, according to U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, who telephoned railroad CEO Richard H. Anderson on Monday evening and urged him to keep the popular display at the center of the station’s soaring waiting room.
Boyle, a Democrat whose district includes a chunk of Northeast Philadelphia, said that he was “very pleasantly surprised” by Anderson’s response, and that Anderson “was very receptive” to retaining the sign in some form. Anderson suggested that Amtrak could either refurbish the flipboard or replace it with a new model that would be integrated into Amtrak’s computer network, Boyle said.
Boyle’s account of Anderson’s comments, first made during an interview on Tuesday with WHYY’s Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane, is the first indication that the passenger railroad has taken the recent public outcry over the sign’s replacement to heart. Amtrak announced in late November that it was preparing to remove the aging board, which has provided travelers with details about track locations and delays since shortly after Amtrak was formed in 1971.
But Amtrak hasn’t even solicited bids from suppliers for the flipboard’s digital replacement, Boyle said. That isn’t expected to happen until January. If that’s the case, then there is still plenty of time to write the specifications more broadly, so that flipboard manufacturers would be eligible to bid on the project.
Precisely how Amtrak intends to proceed remains unclear. I tried to confirm Boyle’s account with an Amtrak spokesman on Tuesday, but did not get a response.
Amtrak has claimed that it had no choice but to convert 30th Street’s information board to digital because the manufacturer, Italy’s Solari company, no longer makes replacement parts and the flipboard was becoming impossible to maintain. Amtrak also said it needed a display that could be integrated with its current software and its public-address system. The current electromechanical display, known as a split-flap board, runs on Windows 95.
Those spinning, black-and-white flipboards once provided the background soundtrack at every Amtrak station, as well as train stations and airports around the world. But they have been rapidly disappearing, as transportation companies opt for digital displays. Amtrak began converting its station boards to digital in 2016. The information board at 30th Street Station is the last survivor.
Boyle, who commutes to Washington several times a week, said he became deeply fond of the sign while waiting for the train at 30th Street. After Amtrak’s 2016 announcement, he would go out of his way to stand near the board just to hear the rhythmic clacking as the arrivals and departures were updated. It pained him to think that Amtrak was about to install a glowing blue screen in one of America’s most beautiful train stations.
“I can’t tell you how many times I looked up at the Philadelphia board and felt sad,” he told me.
When Amtrak revealed in November that it was on the verge of removing the Philadelphia board, Boyle sent Anderson a letter asking for a phone call. As a Democrat representing a city on the Northeast Corridor, he noted that he has been a big supporter of Amtrak’s funding.
“My concern was that we needed to act quickly, or the board would be gone,” Boyle said.
By the time he spoke with Anderson on Monday, Boyle’s social media feeds were filling up with comments begging Amtrak to ditch the digital and save the sign. One of those comments, from Tyler Woods, started a petition to “save the sign” on Change.org. It now has more than 1,300 signatures. Some of the alternatives that Amtrak is now considering were noted in Friday’s “Changing Skyline” column.
Between the time Boyle wrote to Anderson and their conversation, the congressman discovered that a company in his district manufactures flipboards with state-of-the-art computer compatibility. Oat Foundry, which was started in Bensalem five years ago by Drexel University engineering grads, has manufactured modern flipboards for Starbucks, Honeygrow, and the Chicago Cubs. The company’s founder, Mark Kuhn, said on Radio Times that he would love to compete for the commission to rebuild or re-create the Amtrak flipboard.
“If you can end up keeping this iconic sign in the most beautiful train station in country, and support an American employer at the same time, that would be the best of all worlds,” Boyle said.