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Train Station Music

Category : Uncategorized · by Nov 22nd, 2008

I like train stations almost as much as I dislike the climate-controlled, fast food lubricated, homogeneous environment of Airport Land. There are some great things to recommend train stations:

  • Location: Because airports are unsightly, large and polluting, they are always found on the outskirts of a city surrounded by gas stations, long term parking lots, and bland airport hotels. If there is anything else around, it’s because things have sprawled out that far. In contrast, (most) train stations are in the middle of a city. Perhaps the only nice part of traveling through NYC’s Penn Station is emerging from the ground in the midst of the city.
  • Atmosphere: Airports are like holding tanks for people. No one wants to spend time in an airport if they can help it; anyone who has been there long enough to look around cannot still be in a good mood. The air is too dry, the food is too greasy, the seats are too uncomfortable, and the security announcements are more than sufficient to bring on serious insanity. Classic train stations are frequently among the most interesting and pleasant public spaces in a city (and frequently one of the only indoor places to go for free). Grand Central is so nice that the oyster bar downstairs is Zagat-rated. Even in small towns or cities past their prime, train stations are frequently quite classy.
  • Security: I hate the TSA; airport security always puts me in a bad mood, even when its managed by the Swiss, whose agents are fairly described friendy, efficient, and respectful. No one stops you in a train station. My bag stays packed. I can show up right before departure without having to stand in line for a useless charade.

If there is a punctum for me in any great train station, it is the departure board. As a child, I always loved the scene in front of the LIRR departure board in Penn Station. After work, everyone stands in front of the board waiting for their train’s platform to be posted. Businessmen are standing there sucking a 40 with straw, kids are slumped on the floor, and you never fail to see someone you know. In the moments before a train is posted, every-day commuters start inching towards their predicted platform. After the announcement, there’s a mad dash to the stairs that presents a real trampling risk.

What has always stuck with me the most, however, is the board’s sound. I love the sound of an analog Solari & C. Udine split-flap display flipping through the destinations and times. After a departure, there’s an avalanche of activity as the whole display is shifted up a line. I really missed the clicking sound when the MTA replaced the old LIRR board with a new digital one, I think about the sound every time I’m standing there waiting to (hopefully) flop down in a train seat.

Today I spent some time in Boston’s South Station, another beautiful 19th century relic, while going to and from the Boston Museum of Science.

Boston South Station

Boston South Station

I spent a lot of time in that station traveling to debate in high school, and I always looked forward to eating the blackened fish from Cajun Cajun, perusing Barbara’s Bestsellers, and hearing the split-flap clicks echo off the high ceilings.  The authorities there must have recently acquired a new digital sign, which they hung between the older MBTA and AMTRAK split-flap models. While the two older signs are frozen in place – there’s an 11.59 MBTA to Providence that’s still waiting to depart – the designers apparently didn’t want to sacrifice the sound. The new board has a speaker on the side that plays a recording of the classic clicks whenever something on the digital sign changes. It’s certainly not the same, but I appreciate the pastiche.


(1) Comment

10 years ago · Reply

You enjoyed a science museum and a train ride without me?

I am never, ever living with you again, Nick Werle.

[Except I probably will.]

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