Experts: Freight Environment Unlikely to Improve Much Soon
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Executives across multiple segments of the trucking industry expect the freight environment to take considerable time to improve substantially, even as they are confident a nadir has been found.
The flatbed market is steady, said Rob Roberson, director of corporate logistics at steelmaker Nucor Corp. “We’re not rocking and rolling, but we’re holding steady,” he told the recent FTR Transportation Conference 2023 in Indianapolis.
Nucor was the largest U.S. steelmaker by tonnage in 2022, according to trade group Worldsteel.
In the second quarter of 2025, activity could pick up, said Roberson.
The flatbed segment has seen some of the toughest conditions across the trucking industry over the last year or so after some good years previously, said FTR Transportation Intelligence Vice President of Trucking Research Avery Vise.
PS Logistics Vice President of Logistics Services Brad McDaniel agreed that the market was steady, although as a shipper, he said he was ready for that to end. However, there are advantages to this situation, he said, noting that “when the pendulum is closer to the middle, it is a better relationship between the shipper and the carrier, it is not combative, it is not transactional, it is collaborative.”
P&S Transportation is a unit of PS Logistics, which ranks No. 33 on Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America and No. 3 on the Flatbed/Heavy Specialized list.
Things are not a great deal different in the dry van market, executives told conference attendees.
Dry van demand is good, but not great, Schneider National Senior Vice President of Operations John Bozec said, adding that the market feels balanced, and he expects it to remain that way for a while. “It certainly doesn’t feel like a hockey stick is going to happen,” he said.
Schneider executive John Bozec said that in the dry van market, no one seems to be "raising the red flag of panic" but "is just grinding forward." (FTR)
The segment continues to grind and will do so going forward, Bozec said. “Everyone’s trying to do these channel checks to get a gauge in terms of where things are at, and it doesn’t seem like anyone is raising the red flag of panic, but it is just grinding forward,” he said. Schneider ranks No. 8 on the for-hire TT 100 and No. 6 in the Truckload rankings.
That stance is reflected in the latest truck tonnage data. August truck tonnage decreased 2.3% compared with year-ago levels but nudged higher compared with July, the second straight month in which there has been a slight sequential improvement, according to American Trucking Associations data released Sept. 19.
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“The evidence is growing that tonnage hit bottom in April and continues its slow climb upwards,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said in a statement released alongside the latest monthly For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index.
Circumstances are set to improve in e-commerce in the short term due to personal consumption increasing after consumers spent more money on traveling more during the summer, said David Perry, truck and intermodal sourcing manager for International Paper. International Paper ranks No. 3 on the TT list of the largest Paper/Office Products carriers.
That said, industry experts say they expect a modest peak shipping season in 2023. The busiest week in the peak season is typically the last week of September. Also, an Uber Freight third-quarter market update and outlook said Aug. 9 that the coming months would see some weakness because of backlogs.
In the meantime, Tyson Foods Director for Contract Carriers Chris Kozak said he was optimistic about the refrigerated freight sector in the coming fiscal year. “Better days are ahead, and we’re already seeing it,” Kozak said.
But “if you are in the food or reefer business, it doesn’t take much to get out of whack,” warned Kozak, adding that even a penny on the dollar brings big changes.
Tyson Foods ranks No. 11 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America and No. 1 in the Agriculture/Food Processing sector.
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In addition, competition in the sector is even more fragmented than in the dry van segment, and margins are tighter, added C.R. England CEO Chad England. “I think it has been a pretty rough time in refrigerated here lately,” he said.
Fuel prices are also on the rise, conference speakers noted, and that will hurt players in the fragmented reefer market more than most. “The market can stay irrational more than you can survive it,” England said, adding, “I just don’t know how [smaller players are] going to make it.”