In March 1958, a small group of transportation researchers held a farewell luncheon for a colleague Sir Alan A. Walters, a native of England who had been on an assignment for the United Nations in New York. More than 100 people turned out to hear Sir Alan speak on “Why Transportation Researchers Need a Forum to Discuss Their Work.” The success prompted railroad economist Herbert O. Whitten to ask if there was interest in future meetings to allow others to speak on transportation topics. Thus was born the Transportation Research Forum of New York, with Whitten serving as its first president. At that time, most of the major railroads were headquartered in New York City and their economists were frustrated by the narrow focus of professional associations which virtually ignored the unique nature of railroad costing and economics.
Two years later this evolved into a multi-modal national organization. The first organizing meeting of the American Transportation Research Forum was held in St. Louis, Missouri in December 1960. The New York Transportation Research Forum sponsored the meeting and became the founding chapter of the ATRF. Local chapters in Washington D.C. and Chicago chapters were organized soon after, and along with New York continue to this day. Chapters were also established in Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle.
In 1965, Canadian members formed the separate Canadian Transportation Research Forum and the name of the United States organization was shortened to the Transportation Research Forum.
In 1987, TRF established a peer-reviewed academic and professional journal, the Journal of the Transportation Research Forum, which is published three times a year.