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May 19, 2020 12:00 PM, EDT

April Tonnage Down 11.3% Year-Over-Year

ATA's For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index Plunges, as Do Other Metrics
Trucks on highwayJohn Sommers II for Transport Topics

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April truck tonnage declined 11.3% compared with year-ago levels, the steepest year-over-year decline since 2009, American Trucking Associations reported.

Other indices also reported declines for the month, as financial experts discuss what may lie ahead for trucking as the country battles back from the coronavirus pandemic.

ATA on May 19 announced that its monthly, seasonally adjusted For-Hire Truck Tonnage index registered 104.9 in April, down from 118.4 a year ago. On a monthly basis, April was down 12.2% from March, when the index registered 119.5 (in calculating the index, 100 represents 2015 levels). The March result has been revised down by 0.4% from the 1.2% increase that was reported April 21, ATA said.

“April’s monthly decline was the largest in 26 years when there was a labor strike in April 1994,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said in a statement. “Considering that April factory output and retail sales plummeted, the large drop in truck freight is not surprising.”

Costello noted that sectors of the industry that are delivering essential goods amid the COVID-19 pandemic fared better than others.

“Not all fleets saw large declines in April,” he said. “Those hauling food for grocery stores and those involved in the online retail supply chain outperformed most other fleets.” However, he noted that some other fleets “witnessed very large declines in freight last month.”

ATA calculates the tonnage index based on surveys from its membership and has been doing so since the 1970s.

Despite early hope from some economists that the coronavirus would cause a V-shaped downturn for the U.S. economy — a deep drop followed by a quick upturn — Costello indicated the country is more likely headed for a measured recovery.

“These historic declines show just how much trucking was impacted by our national response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “As the nation starts taking small steps toward reopening, we should see some modest improvements in the freight market, but the size of April’s decline gives us an idea of how long the road back may be.”

But the industry may be reaching a floor in terms of demand, according to Portland, Ore.-based load board operator DAT Solutions.

“Truckload freight volumes plummeted in April and appeared to bottom out, with much of the economy still shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic,” the company said May 11 in announcing that its Truckload Volume Index, a measure of dry van, refrigerated and flatbed loads moved by truckload carriers, fell 8% last month when compared with April 2019. On a monthly basis, comparing March and April, the drop was 19%.

Ken Adamo

Adamo

“With so many businesses closed or operating at low capacity, truckload shipments have plunged, which put spot rates in dangerously low territory for owner-operators and small carriers,” DAT Chief of Analytics Ken Adamo said in a statement. “Some drivers parked their trucks to wait for better business conditions, but there’s still lots of available capacity as a result of the low volumes, which has kept rates down.”

DAT’s April load-to-truck ratio for vans was 1.0 nationally, its lowest level since February 2016. However, DAT noted that the ratio was lower than 1.0 for three of the month’s four weeks, meaning there were more trucks than freight posted on the company’s network.

DAT said spot market van volumes fell 5% in April compared to March; at $1.63 per mile, the national average van spot rate was down 23 cents from the previous month. Spot van rates fell 17 cents per mile compared with April 2019.

The flatbed market also declined in April as reductions in manufacturing, construction and oilfield activity contributed to a 75.3% drop in the DAT national load-to-truck ratio for flatbeds. The ratio plunged from 21.8 in March to 5.3 in April, an all-time low.

The national average flatbed spot rate was $1.93 per mile, 26 cents less than March and the lowest since January 2017.

“Some drivers will not be able to sustain operations very long at these levels,” Adamo said. “Spring produce shipping should offer some relief and put some needed upward pressure on prices in May.”

Cass Freight noted that shifts in the broader economy contributed to declines in the freight market.

“The Cass Freight Index showed the expected big dip in activity last month, after all the March consumer panic buying subsided, leaving us with just the negative impact of shut-in orders and rising unemployment levels,” the company said in a May 11 statement that accompanied the release of its monthly index.

The Cass Freight Shipment Index for April said shipment volumes dropped 22.7% compared with year-ago levels. At .923, it has returned to 2009 levels.

“For April, the overall index for both shipments and expenditures fell sharply year-over-year to recessionary levels,” the company said.

The Truckload Linehaul Index dropped 7% year-over-year, the Intermodal Price Index fell 7.1%, and the Freight Index for Expenditures fell 18.2%.

Cass is cautiously optimistic that the economy will gain momentum this summer.

“Businesses and mobility were severely limited by unprecedented governmental restrictions in April, and those are loosening here in May and should further loosen on their way back to ‘normal’ in June,” it said.

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