National spot rates continued to decline in April. - Source: DAT

National spot rates continued to decline in April.

Source: DAT

Truckload freight volumes dropped and national average spot rates for dry van and refrigerated loads fell for the fourth consecutive month in April, said DAT Freight & Analytics, which operates a major online freight marketplace and the DAT iQ data analytics service.

The DAT Truckload Volume Index, a measure of loads moved during a given month, was lower for all three equipment types:

  • Van TVI was 206, down 15.5% from March and 12.3% lower year over year.
  • Reefer TVI fell to 154, a 16.3% decline from March and 12.5% lower year over year.
  • Flatbed TVI was 239, 13.7% lower compared to March but 3.5% higher year over year.

DAT reports it is not unusual for truckload freight volumes to decline from March to April. However, the van and reefer index numbers were the lowest since February 2021, when a polar vortex and unprecedented winter storms disrupted logistics activity across large areas of the United States and Canada.

“May will be pivotal for shippers, brokers, and carriers,” said Ken Adamo, DAT’s chief of analytics. “After a challenging first four months of the year, we expect to see the effects of seasonality on freight volumes and rates. The question is how sustainable those effects will be.”

Truckload Demand and Pricing

National average load-to-truck ratios decreased, indicating weaker demand for truckload capacity on the spot market. The last time van and reefer ratios were this low was in May and April 2020, respectively, during the supply chain shocks of the pandemic:

  • Van ratio: 1.9, down from 2.0 in March, and 3.4 in April 2022. 
  • Reefer ratio: 2.7, down from 3.0 in March and 6.3 year over year.
  • Flatbed ratio: 12.1, down from 12.1 in March and 64.5 year over year.

This lower demand for truckload services led to a drop in national average spot van and reefer rates:

  • The spot van rate averaged $2.06 per mile, down 10 cents compared to March and 71 cents lower year over year.
  • The spot reefer rate fell 9 cents to $2.41 a mile, 72 cents lower than in April 2022.
  • The spot flatbed rate dipped 4 cents to $2.67 a mile, down 70 cents year over year.

Line-haul rates, which subtract an amount equal to a fuel surcharge, continued a pattern of month-over-month declines in 2023. The national average van line-haul rate was $1.59 per mile, down 8 cents compared to March, while the reefer line-haul rate fell 7 cents to $1.89 a mile. The average flatbed line-haul rate was $2.10 a mile, down 2 cents.

Fuel surcharge amounts fell 2 cents to an average of 47 cents a mile for van freight, 52 cents for reefers and 57 cents for flatbeds. At $4.10 a gallon, the price of diesel was 11 cents lower compared to March.

Will Seasonality Kick In?

National average rates for contracted freight were lower in April compared to March, but the spread between contract and spot rates rose to near all-time highs: 62 cents for van freight, 60 cents for reefers and 66 cents for flatbeds. 

Adamo called the spread between spot and contract rates “an indicator of where we’re at in the freight cycle — the balance of bargaining power among shippers, brokers, and carriers.”

For the gap to close, two things need to happen, he said.

“One, the supply of trucks on the spot market needs to diminish, which unfortunately means more carriers exiting the market. Two, there needs to be higher demand for trucks — in other words, shippers with more loads than they planned for.

“In 2016 and 2019, it was precisely the third week in May when the spot market entered a recovery phase after prolonged declines and stagnation,” he explained. “Seasonality kicked in and shippers needed more trucks to move fresh produce, construction materials, imports and summer and back-to-school retail goods. If we see an uptick in demand before Memorial Day, it will be a welcome sign for owner-operators and small carriers as we head into the summer and fall.”

More from DAT's analysts: DAT's Dean Croke talked to HDT Talks Trucking about how California's AB5 law restricting the use of independent contractors will affect trucking capacity and on how freight moves in and out of the state: The Broader Freight Impact of California’s AB5 [Video]

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