The antique Amtrak Solari board

Updated Dec. 1

More than two years after news broke that Amtrak would replace the iconic departures board at 30th Street Station, the move looks like it’s finally about to happen.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission expects to take ownership of the world-famous Solari board as soon as January 2019. The model, which flips individual panels each time a train’s status is updated, providing that classic “clicking” sound familiar to travelers around the globe, is considered an antique.

An official agreement hasn’t yet been signed, so the transfer date is subject to change. But Howard Pollman, spokesperson for the historical commission, is pretty certain he’ll receive the board in late January or early February.

At that point, the sign will move 60 miles to its new home: The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg.

And it’s not a moment too soon, per museum site manager Patrick Morrison. They’ve been negotiating an agreement with Amtrak for more than two years. Morrison is thrilled to acquire what he calls an “electromechanical wonder” and incorporate it into an existing exhibit.

Amtrak officials confirmed the expected January move date to the Inquirer and Daily News on Thursday. The installation of digital signage will begin in December, per that report, with displays installed above the stairways that lead to platforms.” caption=”BILLY%20PENN%20VIDEO” /]

‘An amazing time capsule’

Display panels of this type are named for the manufacturer Solari di Udine, of Udine, Italy. They grew in popularity in the 1950s, and were installed en masse in airports and train stations worldwide. Even early seasons of game shows like Family Feud used them.

Now, they’re nearly extinct in the United States. To mixed emotions, New York Penn Station got rid of its Solari board two years ago. The entire Metro-North transit system replaced its network of Solari boards by 2014.

That Philadelphia’s is still around could stem from the fact that the city got into the game a little late: 30th Street Station didn’t install its flippy board until the 1970s.

“It’s an amazing time capsule,” Morrison told Billy Penn. “The sounds of a board like this one have been the soundtrack of the daily life of many Philadelphia commuters and travelers for more than three decades.”

Despite their storied history, commuter organizations often advocate to replace the Solari boards. Oftentimes, they’re so old that they start to break, making commuting more difficult. And  the technology is dated. Philly operates its Solari board using Windows 95.

“Anything you can do to improve the traffic flow of humans through the space is going to be a plus,” Jim Mathews, the president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, told the New York Times.

Still, regulars will miss the board — the old-timey clicking sound elicits a wave of nostalgia for commuters and long-distance travelers alike.

Lucky for those nostalgic passengers, the Philly Solari board isn’t gone forever. Railroad Museum officials expect to incorporate it into a public exhibit in 2019.

From 16 million viewers to 115,000

So where’s the Solari board actually headed? To an exhibit called “All Aboard!” that has been in the works at the Railroad Museum for a year.

“The theme of the whole exhibit is that railroads changed our lives forever,” Morrison said. “It will focus on the experiences of travelers and commuters by train in the last two centuries.”

The board  — which Morrison called one of the museum’s more modern artifacts — will be positioned on a mock-train platform in a subsection of the exhibit. Visitors can travel through other sections, too, like one on rail dining and another on train advertisements.

“The Solari board fits into a larger theme,” Morrison said. “We’re using it as an aesthetic for the exhibit on station architecture.”

Disclaimer: Inside the exhibit, the Solari board might not actually be turned on. If running the board turns out to be too difficult, Morrison said they’ll probably run a video of it in the same room as the board itself. That way, visitors still get the clicking sound.

“We want to give folks a feel of what it was like when it was run,” he said.

Though on display, the Solari board will catch way fewer eyes in the Railroad Museum than it does in its current home. 30th Street Station is Amtrak’s third-busiest stop, serving 16 million people annually. The Railroad Museum gets about 115,000 visitors every year, Morrison estimated.

If you want to see the board after the move, you’ll have to get tickets. Luckily they’re pretty affordable:

  • $10 for ages 12 to 64
  • $9 for AAA members ages 12 to 24
  • $9 for people ages 65 and up
  • $8 for ages 3 to 11
  • Free for ages 2 and under

The hardest part? Moving the damn thing. Morrison estimates the board weighs a ton… literally. They’ll have to find a way to get it out of the busy 30th Street Station, likely using a crane during non-peak hours. Then it’ll have to enter the museum through roll-up doors — the same huge ones that they use to get actual trains inside.

It will probably cost the Railroad Museum tens of thousands of dollars just to move it.

But for the sake of preserving transit history, Morrison is confident that the effort is worth it.

“It tells a multitude of stories,” he said. “An object like this doesn’t just talk about the technology of the time. It talks about what people’s daily lives were like. There’s not a single person who passes through that station who doesn’t have a story to tell about being around it.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...