Those ‘flapping’ Solari boards at US train stations are leaving the terminal

The World
Departure board on display at Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I personally remember the huge train schedule board located in Grand Central Terminal in New York. I'd just stand there, mesmerized as the panels flipped and the sounds they made flapped. 

And apparently, I'm not the only one with fond memories like this.

Sounds can take us back in time, into a kind of memory time travel. And soon, the "flapping" sound travelers now hear at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station will become an aural memory.

Amtrak officials are planning to replace the station's analog Solari board with a digital one.

The distinctive sound from Philadelphia's and other iconic Solari signs come from the split-flap cards that flap when it reveals new travel information. Throughout the 1960s to the 1990s, the Solari board kept people on time and informed.


Matt Soar reworks and collects Solari boards. He's an associate professor of communication studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

"In a way, it's not about the signs themselves. They act as a kind of lightning rod," he says. "So people respond to them in a such a warm and thoughtful way because they remember stories."

Soar's story happens in the Midlands, in England.

When he was 9 or 10 years old he remembers taking the train to London and spending the day trainspotting. He'd go to King's Cross, Paddington or one of the other several main terminals in London, and there would be "these jumbo displays of cascading letters and numbers that had this waterfall effect … but also had this amazing, very, very distinctive fluttering sound to them as the information changed on them."

Soar and his team at Concordia University have a collection of Solari boards that were once used at Montreal-Mirabel International Airport. He "fiddles around with these things and gets them working again."


He says, "I demonstrate these Solari split-flaps to anybody who's interested and I often get a smile or a warm nod of acknowledgement with the sound that for a lot of us, is very, very familiar and takes us a long way back in our lives and our own experiences of travel."

The Solari board is named after its Italian manufacturer, Solari di Udine, and was first installed at Liège-Guillemins Railway Station in Belgium in 1956. The station in Philadelphia is one of the last remaining terminals in the United States with this type of board.

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