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December 2006

Rail News: People

Jalene Forbis: a master multi-tasker


Jalene Forbis thrives on challenges. Maybe that’s why she’s so successful. Her life is full of them.

A single mother, Forbis is director of the California Short Line Railroad Association (CSLRA), director of governmental affairs for the family-owned McCloud Railway and vice president of advertising and guest services for the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train. She’s also vice chairman of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association’s (ASLRRA) Legislative Policy Committee, and a member of ASLRRA’s State Associations Committee, Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) State Relations Policy Committee and the North American Rail Alliance. Oh, and Forbis is active in state politics, serving as secretary of the California Republican Party.

“Someone once told me that you can’t do a lot of things well, but Jalene does — she does an amazing job of doing a lot of things at one time,” says Jeff Forbis, Jalene’s father and owner of the McCloud Railway.

For more than a decade, Forbis, 34, has been involved with railroad-related legislative issues at both the state and national levels. She’s built CSLRA membership and participation to an all-time high, and helped create and promote the federal short-line tax credit bill.

Forbis’ drive and determination earned her the League of Railway Industry Women's 2006 “Outstanding Woman of the Year” award, which is sponsored by Progressive Railroading.

Temporary intentions
Today, it’s hard for Forbis to imagine what a non-railroading life would be like. But when she began working for her father’s railroad at age 20, she didn't think she’d make a career of it — let alone become an industry stand-out.

When Jeff Forbis purchased the McCloud Railway in 1992, several employees took severance packages offered by the previous owner. Jalene Forbis intended to help her short-staffed father temporarily by handling damage claims, interline accounting and other clerical work. Then, she’d continue with her original plans — to be a stay-at-home mom for her two sons and obtain a college degree once they were in school.

“I intended to just get him through, but I really enjoyed the work,” she says.

Then in 1994, the U.S. Forest Service proposed implementing a stricter historical designation for the 14,000-foot Mt. Shasta in northern California that would encompass a larger area, which included a 15-mile portion of McCloud Railway’s line. Meaning: The government agency would have the power to veto railroad operation decisions.

To fight the designation, Forbis joined a private property rights group, collecting support letters for the railroad and encouraging residents to voice their opposition. The group warded off the designation and Forbis was hooked — both on railroading and politics.

“That was when I learned the importance of grass-roots activism,” she says.

Forbis began handling McCloud Railway’s government affairs and campaigning for state legislators she met through the property rights group. A CSLRA charter board member, Jeff Forbis recognized his daughter’s new interests and took her to a short-line association meeting. She began lobbying for California short-line infrastructure funding and against legislation that would require roads to maintain two-man crews.

The association went one-for-two (the funding bill didn’t pass), but Forbis’ efforts caught the attention of CSLRA board members, who in 2000 approached her about signing on as the association’s new lobbyist. But she had a different idea.

“I wanted to take a different look at the role," says Forbis. “I wanted to grow the organization and provide more resources for members.”

The board agreed, and in 2000, Forbis became the association’s first-ever executive director. Since she took the reins, membership has risen from 10 railroads and two associates (i.e., suppliers and Class Is) to 19 railroads and more than 20 associates. But Forbis doesn’t measure CSLRA's success by membership alone.

“We’re seeing much greater involvement,” she says.

In part because the association has been more active under Forbis’ leadership. CSLRA used to conduct one meeting per year — members would meet with a lobbyist in Sacramento for a couple of hours to discuss issues. Today, CSLRA meets three times annually and serves as a model for other short-line associations.

In spring, the association organizes “Lobby Day” at the state capitol, where members meet in the morning, then split off into smaller groups to meet with state legislators and staff. This year, members participated in about 40 meetings. In summer, the association holds an annual meeting in San Diego. And in fall, CSLRA hosts a train ride from the bay area to Reno, Nev., for suppliers, customers, and governor’s office and legislative staff members.

Over the years, Forbis has become increasingly involved in the ASLRRA, whether it’s helping other associations replicate the California association’s model, launch a state association of their own or improve grass-roots activism.

Her contributions haven’t gone unnoticed.

“Jalene is loaded with energy. She’s very interested and willing to get involved, and she’s very reliable — when she says she’s going to get into something, she really gets into it,” says ASLRRA President Richard Timmons. “She brings together a whole bunch of team-working characteristics.”

And she doesn’t just apply them in the rail industry. Forbis is heavily involved in California politics, from campaigning for legislators (and Gov. Schwarzenegger) to serving her second term as California Republican Party secretary.

“Railroads are meshed in politics in every state, so her understanding of the political process, and awareness of the positive and negative consequences to railroads from a political standpoint, have been very helpful,” says Timmons.

A close connection
That the railroad and political worlds often intermingle is what helps Forbis juggle her various responsibilities, she says.

“In politics, I’m meeting new people at the state capitol with whom I can discuss the short-line association or a new bill; I’m always building new contacts,” she says. “And there are times that I’m doing something with the American short-line association that helps the California short-line association. The fact that it all seems to connect is why it works for me.”

Despite her many commitments, Forbis makes time for her biggest one of all: motherhood.

“With the amount of travel involved in my work, and the fact that I’m raising my kids in a small town three-and-a-half hours away from the closest airport, I struggle to be everywhere I want to be and also be there for my children,” she says, fittingly, while on her cell phone on her way to the airport to attend a rail committee meeting.

Forbis sometimes takes her sons with her when she travels, turning ASLRRA meetings and other business trips into vacations. She also makes sure to keep up with her sons’ many activities. In fall, Tye, 16, and Travis, 14, both played JV football. She only missed one game (she was attending a conference in Canada) and once drove four hours from Sacramento, where she was helping with election activities, to take in a game and headed back.

Forbis might not have followed through with her stay-at-home-mom intentions, but her career allows her to be there for her children in other ways.

“As I’ve gotten more involved in politics, I see how it’s affected the way we live, and I want to see good opportunities for my kids,” she says. “I want to see a better world for them.”


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