All Aboard! Carr & Duff modernizes Philadelphia’s historic 30th Street Station

Jack Ramsdale
Amtrack is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021. | Jack Ramsdale
Published On
May 14, 2021

Passengers traveling through Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station used to gaze up at a traditional, split-flap mechanical sign, while the whirring and clacking sounds of the updating train and platform information echoed around the station. The iconic system now has been retired in a nod to what digital technology can provide 21st-century travelers.

International Display Systems Inc. (IDS), Dayton, Ohio, provided new signage with state-of-the-art digital features as part of a station-wide upgrade. IDS also replaced the public address system. Electrical contractor Carr & Duff Inc., Huntingdon Valley, Pa., installed the new systems, including a new LCD video wall directory board, informational displays and kiosks, and hundreds of speakers. The system, which was completed in 2020, helps Amtrak meet its goals for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) while also automating train information updates and messaging. Amtrak and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) actively use the station, so that means improved customer access and experience for passengers on both rail systems.

For Carr & Duff, the $4 million project required power and communication equipment installation. The company served a design-assist role as the scope of the project changed during the process. For the entire construction team, the challenge was bringing cutting-edge technology into a historic building without disrupting passenger traffic while preserving the historical look of the station. Carr & Duff worked with technical services company Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., which is based in Dallas and has several offices in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

IDS has provided integration for passenger displays for trains and airlines for several decades. When the company began working with Amtrak in 2016, it reached out to local ECs and awarded the work to Carr & Duff. The electrical contractor has served Philadelphia’s local rail services with construction and upgrades for nearly 40 years.

“We have performed enough work for Amtrak and SEPTA in the past that our name was provided as a potential contractor for the project,” said Ryan Landis, Carr & Duff project manager.

New digital technology (shown here) was needed to replace the historic flipboard display. | Daniel Burke
New digital technology (shown here) was needed to replace the historic flipboard display. | Jack Ramsdale

Carr & Duff’s previous work included multiple substation upgrades, station improvements, catenary and trolley wire upgrades, railroad signal improvements and a concrete viaduct rail bridge project.

For 30th Street Station, the new digital technology needed to fit the station’s 1930s aesthetic. The mechanical Solari flipboard Carr & Duff replaced is now on display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Pa. In addition to the new digitized display are ruggedized platform LED signs with a long operational life cycle. Design took several years before work started in July 2018. The project was completed in 2019, Landis said.

The station features a main hall the size of a football field, with ceilings reaching 95 feet. While the marble floors and walls provide an aesthetic impact, they also cause a sound system challenge due to the echo. Carr & Duff would install sound and signage in this space and in the station’s Acela Lounge. The station also has numerous below-ground platforms and subplatform levels with a total of 10 tracks where the signage and audio needed to be upgraded.

The project launched with the installation of the head-end communication and power equipment to energize the new system and tie it into Amtrak’s existing network. Carr & Duff ran conduit from the fourth floor for access to the station’s existing network and installed feeders to new distribution panelboards to bring power to the UPS-protected communication system.

A unique hurdle for the electricians was the active nature of a train station that couldn’t afford to shut down, even temporarily. In fact, 30th Street is one of the busiest stations in the United States. It is a major stop on Amtrak’s Northeast and Keystone Corridors and a hub for SEPTA’s railways. More than 4 million rail passengers pass through it each year.

Additionally, once the project had started, Amtrak required a significant change. After several years of development by the engineering team, Amtrak sought a more cutting-edge signage system.

To make this possible, Amtrak wanted to modify communication distribution to a gigabit passive optical network (GPON) system. Carr & Duff was put in the design-assist role, supported by Urban Engineers, Philadelphia, and Jacobs Engineering to redesign the cabling and installation to make that work. That included changing the number and size of conduits and cables to support the change, Landis said.

The other design focus, he said, was how you structurally mount in a historical station. Any modifications related to moving the planned installation location for signs or speakers had to be coordinated with the historical society. “That added to the complexity of the project.”

More than 4 million rail travelers pass through the 30th Street Station each year. | Daniel Burke
More than 4 million rail travelers pass through the 30th Street Station each year. | Daniel Burke

The most visible renovation was replacing the old flipboard sign, which had become a landmark.

“It was beloved by the passengers, a really well-loved fixture in Philadelphia,” Landis said.

However, the sign’s split-flap system had become a challenge to operate and maintain and was inflexible for the variety of messaging that needed to be displayed.

The replacement needed to be eye-catching and adaptable for today’s requirements. There are a total of eighteen 55-inch monitors mounted on a custom frame in place of the Solari flipboard. Each monitor required 20A receptacles and UPS backup, as well as Cat 6 cable drops. With the backup power supply, if there is an outage at the station, passengers can still view information. Additionally, the facility now has several workstations that allow operators to change the information on the board in real time. All raceway for this signage was run on the track platform ceilings. There are 10 column board displays throughout the main concourse. The new system also included 75 Daktronics informational signs with reinforced Unistrut mounting.

Jack Ramsdale
Jack Ramsdale

The contractor installed six, floor-mounted kiosks in steel enclosures, which are fed by conduits, and data feeds run below the kiosks at the platform and subplatform levels.

Carr & Duff electricians also installed four monitors in the station’s food court and the ticket and customer service offices. In the Acela Lounge, Carr & Duff installed 48-inch monitors, ceiling-hung enclosures and 10 recessed ceiling speakers.

Electricians on the Carr & Duff project stand in front of the iconic Solari flipboard. From left, Corey Bratton, Terry Bratton, Chris Miller, Sebastian Wojnar, Sean Martin, Local 98 apprentices Tyrone Lester and Hanna Lloyd, project manager Ryan Landis and foreman Asok Simon. | Jack Ramsdale
Electricians on the Carr & Duff project stand in front of the iconic Solari flipboard. From left, Corey Bratton, Terry Bratton, Chris Miller, Sebastian Wojnar, Sean Martin, Local 98 apprentices Tyrone Lester and Hanna Lloyd, project manager Ryan Landis and foreman Asok Simon. | Jack Ramsdale

The new sound system is also cutting-edge. It leverages DSP steerable line array column speakers that can adjust the direction and dispersion of sound at multiple frequencies, thereby ensuring announcements can be heard clearly even around marble. For Carr & Duff, the sheer volume of 500 speakers requiring installation was another big challenge. Aesthetics required lining up each speaker, despite the building’s uneven interior facade.

“That was a challenge getting them evenly laid out and looking consistent in the variable conditions,” Landis said.

Uneven ceilings and areas without working space or access meant, for instance, some flush-ceiling speakers had to be installed on walls instead and painted to match existing travertine tile.

“That was necessary just to accommodate the historical look of the station,” Landis said.

In fact, Carr & Duff electricians worked around tight spaces throughout the station as well as working around a busy environment. The headend distribution work—extending out to each platform, including subplatforms—meant very tight work spaces with narrow tunnels and cross-tunnels that connect tracks. The company needed to install in such a way that cable could be run and then accessed again if necessary, despite space constrictions.

“We made a management decision to run as much conduit as we could [at the] subtrack level to minimize the time spent working on the platform level while trains were moving in and out of the station,” Landis said.

That made for a cleaner installation, with conduits running below the tracks and turning up the signage columns, rather than running conduit overhead on the track platforms.

Working on the railroad

Because the station remained active, the electricians at times worked during off-hours. Two tracks in particular experienced high traffic volume that the team had to work carefully around.

“We had times working third and first shift,” Landis said.

On average, Carr & Duff had six electricians on-site, with a peak of 12. For installation, the company collaborated with Amtrak’s in-house electrical traction group, who provided spotters for track outages and protection.

Some of the work required scissor lifts on platforms, at which times the crew was negotiating around a 12,000V energized overhead catenary. The Carr & Duff team made custom modifications to the scissor lifts to make sure they could accommodate the clearance requirements. They built a plywood PVC structure on the lift side that prevented men from coming within range of the catenary or otherwise impeding on the clearance area. They employed flag personnel to watch the work.

Altogether, Carr & Duff installed more than 25,000 feet of raceway, consisting mostly of galvanized rigid conduit serving the signage and speaker locations. The team also installed 400 feet of 24-inch aluminum ladder tray, 3,000 feet of EMT sized 1–3 inches, 22,000 feet of galvanized rigid conduit, and 13,000 feet of multiconductor metal-clad cable. They ran 1,800 feet of Sealtite and thousands of feet of speaker wire and installed 49 stainless-steel junction boxes, 55 galvanized junction boxes and five GPON units in air-conditioned enclosures.

Since the new digital display and audio systems were deployed, Amtrak indicated that the result has been a more modern station with ADA-compliant display.

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