A sea of faces gaze upwards all facing the same direction, all waiting for the sign that a train is ready to board. Will it be platform 8 tonight or have they moved it to platform 10?

The necks of travelers all crane upwards at a slight angle to peer at the boards waiting for the telltale sound that heralds new information.

Many glance away, knowing that their attention will be pulled back the instant something happens.

Suddenly, a flipping, clacking sound.


The audience, in Pavlovian rapture watch as black and white letters flip around. Where platform numbers were blank, the display board works its way through the options. Platform 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 , 6 7, and stops at 8. A momentary hush descends.

Then, the crowd surges forward, bags are picked up, children chastised and office workers dash for a seat home.

These were the Solari split flap indicators, after the Italian company that made them, and for a few short decades, they dominated how people learned which platform to rush to when catching a train.

Their audible changing as numbers flipped over was a familiar, and curiously reassuring sound, alerting distracted minds that INFORMATION is now available. A summons that choreographed its audience to turn as one mind and face the boards for instruction once more.

The flip-board display was first used for a railway in Liege, Belgium, in 1956. By 1962 they were starting to appear in the UK, originally at Manchester airport, but within a few years they were also found on the railways. Euston may have been the first, followed by Waterloo shortly afterwards.

As they aged though their mechanical gears struggling with lack of care, their clickety-clackety-clickety-clack could often be interrupted by sticky flaps, showing trains to destinations that had no right to be leaving from those platforms.

Almost as soon as they completed their monopolisation of the railways, the rise of the digital display was starting to offer alternatives. Slowly the old mechanical flaps were replaced with light emitting diodes.

The old clickety clackety flipping of the numbers and names took a moment to show their final result, a shared moment of anticipation for the captive audience waiting below. Now digital displays are smoothly refreshing instantly, letters swapped in the blink of an eye. Almost too fast to see, and almost so fast that changes can be missed as the eye blinks.

The old display boards are no more. Their repetitive clickety clatter is silenced.

Today their pronouncements appear without audible herald as digital screens flash changes to their rapt audience. The new screens are vastly more flexible, able to show much more information faster and more accurately than ever before.

But their pronouncements are delivered silently, easy to miss if a person glances away, all too easily distracted by the digital display in their hand.

Sometimes, developers of replacement boards have been asked to put a sound effect of the old boards into the digital display, but so far no one has gone ahead with the fake sounds.

A common sound found in railway stations across the country has faded into silent history.


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  1. And from this side of the pond, a nice video tribute to the end of the Solari board: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44_M2BtMUKQ

  2. MisterT says:

    But the new boards do allow a little wit (or incompetence) to cheer the dreary day – recently a train from Milton Keynes Central wasn’t going to a local university city, but instead was destined to find it’s way to the delightful village of Ambridge…

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