During the mid to late 1950's, the type food service required by the travelling public on inter-city passenger trains was changing. Food service cars ordered and operated immediately after World War II were designed for elegant, full service dining. By the late 1950's, passengers clamored for a lower cost food service option. To satisfy this demand, railroads, including the Union Pacific Railroad, began to utilize lunch counter cars.
In late 1958 and early 1959, the Union Pacific decided to rebuild the 5000 series (5000-5006) diner-lounge cars into lunch counter cars. As built by the American Car and Foundry in 1949, the 5000 series cars had a café capacity of 24, a card section of 8, a lounge capacity of 20, 3 loading doors, and a 21-foot kitchen.
During the rebuild of the 5000s, the card section was removed, the lounge capacity was reduced by 4 to 16, and a lunch counter with a seating capacity of 8. As a result, the 6 dining tables which seated 24 individuals were moved towards the lounge end of the car. Two windows were blanked out and the mid-car loading door was removed to allow for the installation of additional food storage areas and coolers.
In addition to rebuilding the 6 café-lounge cars on the property, the Union Pacific also ordered 10 more of the 5000 series cars (5007-5016) from the St. Louis Car Company. These cars were delivered in July 1959 and were identical in configuration to the rebuilt 5000s.
In early 1970, lunch counter-café-lounge car 5001 was out of service and stored in UP's Los Angeles coach yards. Members of the Pacific Railroad Society (PRS) inquired about the availability of the car for purchase. By the end of the year, PRS had purchased the 5001. After the purchase of the 5001, a contest was held to assign a name to the car. The winning entry was Starlight Café and the car was so christened.
During the 1970's, several modifications to the interior of the Starlight Café were performed. The original lounge chairs were replaced with more modern chairs, a stained glass partition was installed between the lounge and eating areas, and wood paneling was installed in the hallway next to the kitchen. Although these changes did not irreversible damage the historical value of the car, the changes altered the as-rebuilt appearance of the car.
During the 1990's, original UP chairs were purchase or donated to refurnish the lounge area. Some of the modifications have been removed and some of the original appearance has been restored. Future plans include remove the rest of the modifications including the wood paneling.
Repairs to the car to operational systems have been performed recently. The water system in the kitchen has been refurbished, the electrical system has been checked for problems, the air conditioning systems has been checked, and new wood slates were made for the kitchen. In addition, PRS has raised funds to proceed with the repairs and modifications required to make the Starlight Café fully Amtrak compatible. This work includes completing a 40-year truck rebuild, installing Head-End-Power cables, and installing Amfleet compatible diaphragms.
The Starlight Cafe has been used on numerous one-day and overnight PRS excursions. It operated to San Francisco and on the Indio Date Festival Limited in 1987 and was last used on the Mojave Circle excursion in 1988.