July 18, 2011 8:00 AM, EDT

The Top 100 For-Hire Fleets

This Editorial appears in the July 18 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

This week’s issue includes our extremely popular Transport Topics Top 100 ranking of the largest for-hire motor carriers in the United States and Canada.

And once again the list is headed by UPS Inc., as it has been for all of the 23 years we have publish-ed rankings of the largest carriers. UPS’ arch-rival, FedEx Corp., is again No. 2 on this year’s Top 100 list.

We have six new entrants in the Top 100, including three Canadian fleets, while last year’s No. 3 carrier, DHL USA, disappeared from our rankings after its parent, Deutsche Post DHL, shut down its U.S. operations and sold its Canadian business.

Perhaps the best news in our report is the concrete evidence of how much better things are in general for the trucking industry.

In all, our calculations show that the Top 100 fleets earned $163.3 billion in freight revenue during 2010, a 10.7% increase over 2009’s depressed level.

While the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession hasn’t been as quick or as robust as many had hoped or expected, the data show a definite firming in trucking. While fleets aren’t, for the most part, expanding capacity, they are hard at work replacing tractors that are past their prime but were kept on the road as carriers aimed to preserve capital.

And the responses to our survey hint that fleets may well be preparing to expand a bit, based on answers to questions we asked about future equipment purchases.

As of now, it appears that the biggest challenge for fleets this year will be finding enough drivers, especially if the analysts who expect economic growth to expand in the last half of 2011 are correct.

Several carrier executives told us they already were having trouble hiring drivers, and they predicted driver wages would have to rise in order to attract enough new blood to the industry.

And these projections don’t include any loss in productivity that would result if the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration cuts the number of hours drivers may be behind the wheel.

In all, 2011 is shaping up as another year of challenges for trucking. But now, at least, the primary problems are likely to be caused by too much freight and not by a lack of it.

There’s no question that most of us would rather worry about how to handle too much business than to struggle through another year of suffering from too little.