Freight moving slower than expected

For-hire trucking tonnage rose a scant 0.4% increase in March this year, according to figures compiled by the American Trucking Assns (ATA). And while the tonnage figures indicate freight volumes are moving in the right direction, they came in below expectations for many

For-hire trucking tonnage rose a scant 0.4% increase in March this year, according to figures compiled by the American Trucking Assns (ATA). And while the tonnage figures indicate freight volumes are moving in the right direction, they came in below expectations for many.

“In general, these numbers are fairly in line with expectations; however, they are a little bit lower than expected as we were coming off weather-related issues in February,” Eric Starks, president of research firm FTR Associates, told FleetOwner.

ATA’s for-hire truck tonnage index decreased 0.3% in February following the impact of several major winter storms across much of the U.S. As a result, said Starks, many in the industry expected freight to rebound strongly in March.

“The expectations for March were an uptick in freight – and obviously that didn’t happen,” he said. “Either the weather wasn’t as much a factor as we thought or things just aren’t growing as fast as we’d hoped.”

That being said, Starks stressed that the March tonnage increase recorded by ATA – however small – is “still a positive thing.”

“Freight is moving in the right direction and I continue to hear from motor carriers that both the demand and supply situations are steadily improving,” stated Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist.

For the first quarter of 2010, he said, ATA’s for-hire tonnage metric jumped 4.9% compared with the same period last year, and that is making Costello more optimistic about the motor carrier industry’s recovery.

“For most fleets, freight volumes feel better than reported tonnage because the supply situation, particularly in the truckload sector, is turning quickly,” he said.

Costello also attributed the first-quarter improvement in tonnage to the growing economy and to a slight inventory build after some sectors slashed inventories by too much in 2009.

Still, FTR’s Starks cautioned that the industry shouldn’t be reading too much into year-over-year and even quarter-over-quarter freight volume comparisons for the time being.

“We’re coming off such low levels that such comparisons can distort the freight picture; they won’t really tell us anything,” he explained. “Right now, the month-to-month numbers are going to be more important in terms of reading freight. Right now, we still expect to see incremental improvements as the freight recovery continues to move forward.”

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