Trailer Talk

Big-Fleet Demand for Vans Leads Surge in Trailer Orders

Switch to 33-foot pups could cause new business, ACT's Frank Maly thinks.

May 27, 2014

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The growth of the dump business could be threatened by the lack of progress on a highway bill in Washington.
The growth of the dump business could be threatened by the lack of progress on a highway bill in Washington.

Pushed by large-fleet demand for dry vans and refrigerated trailers, overall trailer orders were up 25% in the first three months of 2014 and by 20% in April, reports ACT Research.

Vans and reefers were up 55%, “and that’s net orders after cancellations,” said Frank Maly, director of commercial transportation research and analysis. “Cancellations have been low pretty much across the board. Backlogs are roughly six months, and are into December for some OEs.”

Orders in the last three months of 2013 were “pretty even” compared to the previous year, but a surge began in January and continued into April. Most are for replacement of older trailers, but “you still have to have to money to pay for it,” he said.

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ACT’s monthly surveys of large fleets also indicates that some are expanding because they see solid freight growth. The driver shortage is a puzzle because “just because you have new equipment doesn’t mean you can fill the seats to pull them," Maly says. "I think you’re seeing a shift to more hook-and-drop operations to make the best use of equipment and drivers.”

Also up are tankers and dumps.

“The tank side has come back rather significantly,” Maly said. “There are some small orders overall, but they’re up in the triple digits."

Two or three years ago they were up in dry bulk orders for hauling sand and ceramic materials for fracking, “but that fell apart pretty fast. And it led to negative net orders when natural gas prices started to ease and a lot of exploratory drilling fell off because it didn’t make economic sense to do that.

“And they were up against some good, gently used equipment that was coming onto the market. But it’s come back again for dry bulk. Liquid tanks are about double, mostly for oil and chemicals, and also for food stuffs."

Flatbeds have seen some improvement, in the lower double digits, 10 to 15%, year to date, he said.

“Dumps are in the 25% range year to date, but if we don’t get some firm commitments (from Congress) for highway construction, that’s gonna lead to some fits out there.

“The more we go into the year, the less likely we’re going to see a long-term bill. States are beginning to throw up their hands and say, ‘We’re going to have to do it ourselves.’ And drivers see the need for higher taxes.

"The problem is, some of the money goes to other things. I live in Michigan where we have high (fuel) taxes, and some of it is folded into the general fund,” he said.

“One question for the highway bill -- are we going to expand, going to longer pups (from current 28-foot trailers to 33-footers)? If so, a lot of it will be refurbs, expanding the existing trailers, and there will be a lot of new business.”

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Author Bio

Tom Berg

Senior Editor

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

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