December produced the first month-over-month positive change in spot truckload van and refrigerated freight rates since January, as severe weather and a late surge of holiday goods helped generate demand for capacity, according to DAT Freight & Analytics.
The DAT Truckload Volume Index (TVI) for van freight was 215 in December, a 4.0% decline compared to November and 3.6% lower year-over-year. The van TVI was 5.9% higher than in December 2020 and was the second-highest December on record.
At 167, the refrigerated TVI was 4.0% lower month-over-month and down 1.2% year-over-year, DAT said. The flatbed TVI fell 11.8% compared to November but was 3.2% higher year-over-year.
“There was a peak season for truckload freight; it just arrived later than usual and with many of the variables you’d expect in December, from winter storms to a rush of retail sales boosted by last-minute deals for holiday shoppers,” said Ken Adamo, DAT chief of analytics. “To borrow a football term, sometimes you have to let the play develop and not count out a season or freight cycle.”
Spot van, reefer rates jumped
Spot truckload freight rates ended the year on a higher note, and line-haul rates increased substantially:
- The national average spot van and reefer rate rose 3 cents from November to $2.41 per mile and $2.82 per mile, respectively. The average flatbed rate was $2.77 per mile, 3 cents lower than the November average.
- The national average line-haul rate for van freight jumped 12 cents to $1.83 a mile, the highest since September. The reefer line-haul rate increased 13 cents to $2.19 a mile and the line-haul flatbed rate averaged $2.08 a mile, up 8 cents month-over-month.
- Line-haul rates remained well below December 2022, when they averaged $2.60 a mile for van freight, $3.04 a mile for reefers and $2.60 a mile for flatbeds.
Load-to-truck ratios increased
DAT load-to-truck ratios reflected stronger demand for truckload services:
- The national average van load-to-truck ratio rose from 2.7 to 3.4, meaning there were 3.4 loads for every van posted to the DAT One network last month.
- The reefer ratio averaged 5.7, up from 4.9 in November, and the flatbed ratio was 9.8, up from 9.3.
Gap between contract and spot rates narrowed
While spot rates increased, rates declined for freight moving under longer-term contracts.
The average shipper-to-broker van rate slipped 8 cents in December to $2.96 a mile, unchanged compared to December 2021. The average contract reefer rate was $3.24 a mile, down 12 cents and 15 cents higher year-over-year, and the average flatbed rate fell 13 cents to $3.53 a mile, 19 cents higher year-over-year.
The gap between spot and contract rates narrowed during December to 55 cents for vans, 42 cents for reefers, and 76 cents for flatbeds.
“December showed that seasonality is coming back to truckload freight,” Adamo concluded. “In your 2023 playbook, expect a slow January and February for spot freight volumes, which is consistent with previous years—at least, years that don’t include a Polar Vortex or pandemic.”