Hitching a ride on a 20th century dining car

Owner Ibrahim Aly maintains the car to preserve history for generations to come.

Owner Ibrahim Aly maintains the car to preserve history for generations to come.

Step onto the platform of Car 1186 and settle in: The Philly Steak and Bagel Train offers more than its classic egg-bacon-and-cheese sandwiches.

The train car originally served as a luxury food car on the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in the early 1900s. During the second half of the century, the train made a permanent stop at its current location on the tracks at Broad and Noble streets, where the restaurant still remains.

Underneath the car, the iron tracks are still in place, ensuring it a permanent spot in the city’s history, as well as Philadelphians’ stomachs. Soon after the car stopped running, it was converted into a restaurant. But after 1996, the owner of the Philly Steak and Bagel Train closed up shop and abandoned the restaurant.

The train sat abandoned for 14 years, but four months ago, current owner Ibrahim Aly spotted the vacant train car. The run-down car needed new flooring, roofing, electric, plumbing and a more accessible layout, but after Aly renovated the space – with every effort to preserve its history – he re-opened the restaurant.

Aly re-established the train-car restaurant despite all the expenses, but it was worth it to know the car “will be here forever,” he said.

“It was my will to see it here for the next generation,” Aly added.

As for its kitchen, the Philly Steak and Bagel Train serves up breakfast and lunch. Aly said that in the morning, customer favorites are the egg-bacon-and-cheese sandwiches and bagels with cream cheese. At lunchtime, customers usually order cheesesteaks, hamburgers or the Cajun fish sandwich, he said.

Customers can also choose from corned beef, roast beef, roast turkey or Romanian pastrami to beef up any of the restaurant’s “Philly Express Special Classic” sandwiches.

Outside, red-white-and-blue paint coats the train’s exterior and helps disguise its age. Despite modern-day tables, chairs and floor tile, history comes to life inside the car, and it’s easy to imagine what the train probably looked like during its heyday at the peak of the railroad business when Philadelphia remained an industrial city.

An original metal sign instructs customers to “Watch Your Step,” and a collage of photos shows the Philly Steak and Bagel Train as it existed before Aly bought it. More black-and-white photographs of early 20th-century Philadelphia line the walls of the train, each with a small caption about each image.

Both the car’s food and history draw in customers, but Letretta Jones, who works across the street at the Philadelphia School District, said it was the great service she enjoyed during her first visit that has kept her coming back.

“The people behind the counter are very friendly,” Jones said.

For Aly, it’s dedication that restored the success of the Philly Steak and Bagel Train.

“If you have commitment in life,” Aly said, “you can do anything.”

Tracy Galloway can be reached at tracy.galloway@temple.edu.

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