Nostalgia for noise at South Station

(The following article by Mac Daniel was posted on the Boston Globe website on April 6.)

BOSTON -- A steady "tickticktickticktick" sounded from the schedule board above the concourse at South Station yesterday. As they have for decades, the necks of travelers craned upward, a Pavlovian response as the black-and-white flaps flipped over and over on the station's 20-year-old Italian-made Solari board.

The MBTA is expected to replace the mechanized schedule board with an electronic one, which will offer more information, be visible from farther away, and be more reliable.
But it will be just as noisy. Passengers have become so used to looking up to see arrivals and changes when they hear the ticking that T officials plan to keep the old sound in the new board.

''We'll keep a little bit of the history," said Daniel A. Grabauskas, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, who said he believes that the new board may be the first in the country designed to mix the traditional and high-tech.

Robert Keelor Jr., vice president of International Display Systems, which sold the Solari to the T, said some of his clients have discussed adding the flipping sound when upgrading to newer schedule boards, but his company has never done it.

''There's a lot of charm to [the traditional boards], audibly," he said. ''There's always talk about keeping the part of the system that you appreciate, and the customers do appreciate the 'tick tick.' "

While the exact method won't be determined until the contract is awarded, the sound will probably come from a recording that is triggered with every change flashed on the new display.

The $2.4 million item up for an MBTA board vote today would replace the display, plus add similar boards and new monitors to North Station and Back Bay. Smaller monitors on platforms at all three stations will also list all stops to be made by each train, so passengers can tell the difference between an express and a local train and avoid confusion, Grabauskas said.

Eventually, T officials said, the boards will be able to count down the minutes or even seconds before a train pulls into a station by using global positioning system technology on the trains.

The old board, installed at South Station after renovations in the 1980s, has broken down twice a day on average in recent months, which means that each train's departure or arrival has to be announced on the public address system.

The current board is so antiquated that technical support is almost nonexistent. When repairs are needed, technicians call a retiree who once worked for the manufacturer or get fix-it advice from the company by phone, Grabauskas said.

On a similar board that was removed from New York's Penn Station in 2000, repairs sometimes involved making new parts from scratch.

The flip-board technology debuted as the world's first railway information display system in Liege, Belgium, in 1956.

In 1959, according to the company's website, a Solari was installed in the Vienna airport and became the world's first passenger flight information system. The technology came to the United States soon thereafter. (Amtrak's Solari board at South Station will remain as Amtrak officials wait to review the new technology used by the T.)

Like old electric clocks in which the numbers flip over with each minute, the mechanical Solari board uses hundreds of flaps with words and numbers that flip over to update the status of trains.

Some commuters said yesterday that they didn't care that the old-style board is about to be replaced.

''As long as it gives me the right time and train, it doesn't bother me," said Mary Murphy, 53, of Roslindale.

But a 29-year-old South Station employee who asked that her name not be used said the Solari board is a form of entertainment.

''When you see all the letters flipping, it's kind of fun," she said. ''You wait to see what it's going to spell out, what's coming next."

Thursday, April 06, 2006
bentley@ble-t.org

http://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/headline.asp?id=15901

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