A monthly gauge of the spot freight market moved sharply higher in March, according to the freight matching service provider DAT Solutions, marking the first month-over-month increase of the year as shippers ramped up activity.

The 47% jump in the DAT North American Freight Index from February also places the measure well above the level of the same time a year ago. Despite this hike, spot truckload rates last month showed only modest gains.

The national average spot rates for van and refrigerated freight added just 1 cent to $1.63 per mile and $1.87 per mile, respectively, compared to February, including average fuel surcharges.

"Rates rose in the last week of March, as shippers rushed freight out to end the quarter on a high note, but that was not enough to offset soft market conditions from early March,” said Don Thornton, senior vice president, DAT.

Demand for trucking services in construction and energy was particularly strong for spot flatbed freight.

Flatbed load posts rose 45% while truck posts increased 6% compared to February. That pushed the flatbed load-to-truck ratio up 38% to 36.6 to 1, which is a 109% gain over March 2016. A flatbed load-to-truck ratio of 18 to 1 is considered very favorable for carriers, according to DAT, and the average flatbed rate gained 6 cents to $2.03 per mile.

Van load posts increased 47% and truck posts rose 13% in March compared to February, for a national average van load-to-truck ratio of 3.2 to 1, which is below the 5.5 to 1 ratio favoring carriers.

Likewise, reefer loads jumped 49% and truck posts increased 14% for load-to-truck ratio of 6.2 to 1, which is considered extremely favorable to refrigerated carriers.

Rates continued to rise in the first week of April, however, signaling a strong start to the second quarter, according to DAT.