Farewell, Big Board: Penn Station Didn’t Deserve You

The old black departures board hangs in Penn Station's main concourse.
Homeward bound.

Rob Pongsajapan/Flickr

Two weeks ago, workers began disassembling Penn Station’s dimming Amtrak departures board, a hanging timetable that announced times and destinations to hundreds of thousands of passengers leaving Manhattan each day.

A stained dark seam in the ceiling now marks the spot, in the central waiting area of America’s busiest train station, where the 10-foot-tall “big board” used to connect to the ceiling. Today, the room is ringed with 38 smaller flat-screen monitors mounted above boarding gates and in waiting rooms. Two larger, ceiling-hung “video walls,” on either end of the room, list departures in white on blue.

On a technical level, this change is about as banal as installing a digital intercom. The big board was a vessel for plenty of misplaced nostalgia. Many fans, myself included, initially misremembered it with the clicking, whirring mechanics of an analog Solari board. But Penn Station’s Solari board made way for a newer, digital timetable around the millennium. Though that millennial iteration shared aesthetic qualities with the older board, its panels were made of segmented LCD glass. Its closest consumer analogue is the display panel of an old clock radio. And yet nostalgia for the big board has proliferated in recent weeks:

People will treasure anything, even a clock radio, if it reminds them of when they were young. I’m increasingly convinced that New Yorkers will soon feel swelling affection for Penn Station, a building so widely despised that its creation, in 1963, birthed the historic preservation movement in this country. “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat,” wrote the architectural historian Vincent Scully, reflecting on the contrast between the current station and its predecessor, a sunlit hall modeled after the Baths of Caracalla. Its reputation hasn’t improved since. The best thing about the station, beyond its reluctant utility to 650,000 people each day, is its role as the built incarnation of the hostile New Yorker—a sunken antihero who punishes newcomers and rewards old-timers. It is an inversion of the noble materials, message, and posture of the Statue of Liberty. If Penn Station held a tablet, it would read, “Get lost.”

But I digress. In the station last week, on a trip to New Jersey, I had a chance to experience what passes for the heart of Penn Station in its new, flat-screen dress. The departure information was there, but something else was missing: the room’s center of gravity.

Digital or otherwise, that giant central sign held the space together. It told people where to stand and where to look, and the collected, upward gazes of the assembled commuters gave the big room a kind of invisible, internal architecture. Lines of sight rising like taut, parallel cables to the room’s center. It was reassuring to watch just one flickering track number send commuters streaming for a train. The big board seemed to be a raw link to the station’s central nervous system; an authentic, shared source of information; a respected, ailing, black-and-white Walter Cronkite to the dozens of squint-provoking LCD screens around it. Even after the smaller monitors were activated in October, travelers continued to look to the big board.

In reality, of course, those monitors brightly broadcast the exact same information as the board. But without the central totem, the screens now distribute commuters to smaller clusters around the room—one of the goals of the redesign—which helps fracture the station’s best chance at a unifying space.

The transition to LCD displays is representative of pervasive laziness on the part of designers who can’t be bothered to find the right piece of interactive technology for the job. Elevator buttons work just fine. Countdown clocks for trains and buses are cheaper and more attractive as simple LED icons, embedded within printed text, than as screens. Forgive me if I am skeptical that a train station that can’t tell you what track a train is arriving on more than five minutes before its departure will be sending out service updates so detailed that they require the versatility of a television screen. More likely some of Penn Station’s monitors will, at some point, broadcast advertisements—like their counterparts in the New York City subway system, whose ads are actually a relief from errant arrival information that sends passengers scrambling for phantom trains.

In the end, that’s what I miss most about the board: its structurally determined devotion to the task at hand. The names of the destinations—Trenton, Montclair, Washington—did not inspire curiosity, let alone a sense of wanderlust, in the commuters gazing up at its illuminated panels. Its colors were limited to white and red. Train numbers, names, destinations, tracks, status: It could do nothing else, because nothing else was needed.