SMART Rail, Mechanical and Engineering (RME) Department spotlight: Kevin Downing (Local 363), General Committee 2 executive board member

May 4, 2023

Tell us about yourself and your career at Amtrak.

Growing up as a young boy in the inner city of Washington, DC was very tough, but it built me into the man I am today. A memory at the precipice of my mind that I will never forget is losing my mother at the age of six years old. My life was split in two, and I felt like no one cared about me anymore. I did whatever I felt like doing, I skipped class and eventually stopped going to school for prolonged amounts of time. School became obsolete to me, and I opted for hanging out in the streets with older guys getting into things we had no business getting into.

My uncle did his best to raise my siblings and me, but it was becoming too much for him to handle holding down a job and keeping us out of trouble. He was left with the hard decision of separating us. I never knew who my father was, so my sister and I were sent to live with her father. It was the first time I lived in Kenilworth projects in DC; we had very little money and resorted to second-hand things as our source of having what we needed. Being the tallest of my eight siblings, hand-me-down clothes never really fit quite right. Pants were “high water,” shoes too tight, and sweaters with sleeves way too short. Living in poverty really lit a fire of determination within me to work and earn a living for myself.

It was living in the projects that spurred me to learn the type of work ethic I needed to survive. I was surrounded by negative influences: I saw people selling and doing drugs, drinking very young and stealing to make it through the day. Fortunately, I had a very loving step mother who — despite the mischievousness of my siblings and I — doted on us, instilled routine and structure, and steered us in the right direction. Looking back on it all, I am so grateful for her impact in my life.

I finished high school, had no trade and was not prepared for college. The summer following my high school graduation, I remember wondering to myself what my career would look like. I had dreams of having a family, with a loving home and a white picket fence, but it seemed unattainable at the time. I refused to sulk in what it would look like to not have these things, and focused on how to achieve these goals. That’s when I decided to attend the Diesel Institute of America and get a trade in diesel mechanics.

Having this trade opened the door for me to be hired at Amtrak as a laborer in 1984. After four years of hard work, I was given a promotion with the responsibility of operating locomotives and yard engines. One year following this promotion, I was given the opportunity to test for apprenticeship as a sheet metal pipefitter. I passed the test, and in 1989 I headed to Beech Grove, Indiana, as a member of the last apprenticeship class for Amtrak. Four years later I completed my apprenticeship and soon after was appointed as lead pipefitter in recognition of my hard work ethic.

As I saw my efforts start to be noticed, I grew the confidence to apply for a management role and got the position over 100 other applicants. After four and a half years working, commissioning new high speed rail trainsets and locomotives in Colorado and Pennsylvania, I decided to resign from management and focus again on helping raise my kids and being a sheet metal pipefitter. I had still been paying union dues to SMART, and I knew that by making this decision I could live comfortably and start my dreams of having and raising a family.

What advice would you give to a young person considering getting into this field?

The advice I have for the youth entering this field is to think about the long term and where you see yourself in the near future. My path started by getting into a trade: working with diesel engines, which transformed into working in sheet metal. This is a great field, and you can’t go wrong working in it. Start while you’re young and able to grow and advance with the technology, and hone the skills you’ll acquire along the way. Even if your plans and ambitions change later on, make sound decisions that will help you grow into a better version of who you are today.

My spouse at the time was able to raise our two beautiful daughters in our new home solely off the salary of a sheet metal pipefitter. It has been a very rewarding and providing career, and I would recommend it to the young folks trying to make a living for themselves and/ or their families.

What has been your involvement with SMART?

My involvement with SMART began by dispersing contract information along with information pertaining to the fields that spell out the SMART acronym to fellow pipefitters within the union. To further my commitment to the union, I ran for an officer’s position as financial secretary-treasurer. The local union needed my leadership and steady hand in order to get back in good standing.

During my time, we were successful in balancing the budget, getting membership dues up to date and passing a major audit. I took pride in servicing our members, and it was noticed by our General Chairman John McCloskey. He recommended I apply for the financial secretary-treasurer position for SMART General Committee II for passenger rails. I applied for the role and accepted the opportunity to serve as a board member while holding my place as financial secretary-treasurer for Local 363. With this new level of responsibility, I was able to travel across the country not only to audit 10 local books, but to fulfill my dream of exploring the United States.

SMART General Committee 2
SMART General Committee II

How has working for our union helped you?

Working with the union has helped me to understand what it means to be a part of something bigger, while also being a great contributor to my society and community closest to me. I believe we are all here to help serve one another in varying capacities, and the union was my avenue to serve. Because the union opened its doors for me to give back to my people, I was able to reflect on how I was truly walking in my calling. For that I am grateful.

Tell us something that might surprise people to know about you.

I have more than 38 years of perfect attendance, and I have only been tardy once. And on June 26, 2023, I will celebrate 39 years with Amtrak. The third thing people may be shocked to know about me is that I was a councilman for the Town of Fairmount Heights and that I ran for mayor of my town, only losing by 16 votes. The last thing others may be taken aback by is that I was a member of the team that broke the record for fastest train travel at a speed of 161 miles per hour. This was while I was working in Philadelphia, commissioning high speed trainsets. I guess you could say I am full of surprises.

What are you most proud of?

I would without question say that I am most proud of my daughters Whitney and Juel Downing, who bring a smile on my face at the sheer thought of them. Since birth they have been my pride and joy, something I desired and worked hard for ever since I was a young man. As adults they have exceeded my expectations by earning their bachelors’ and masters’ degrees. Growing up they have given me no issues whatsoever, and I can confidently say I have model children who have grown to become contributing members of society. This brings me the utmost pride.