March for-hire freight shipments were up in monthly and yearly comparisons.  Source: TSI

March for-hire freight shipments were up in monthly and yearly comparisons. Source: TSI

The amount of freight carried by the nation’s for-hire transportation industry increased in March from the month before, according to new Transportation Department figures, rising for the second consecutive month to reach an all-time high.

The Freight Transportation Services Index rose 1.4% to a reading of 130.8, 0.7% above the previous high in December 2017. This latest reading is also 38% above the April 2009 low hit during the most recent economic recession.

March 2018 for-hire freight shipments posted a 7.9% increase from the same time a year earlier.

The February index was revised upward to 129 from 127.6 in last month’s release.

The Freight TSI measures the month-to-month changes in for-hire freight shipments by mode of transportation in tons and ton-miles, which are combined into one index. The index consists of data from for-hire trucking, rail, inland waterways, pipelines and air freight.

The March increase in the Freight TSI was broad based, with increases in all modes except pipeline, which was stable, according to the department.

The TSI increase took place against a background of mostly positive results for other indicators. The Federal Reserve Board’s Industrial Production index rose by 0.5% in December, with significant increases in mining and utilities and a very small increase in manufacturing. Personal income and housing starts grew while the Institute for Supply Management Manufacturing index declined, indicating decelerating growth.

Freight Transportation Services Index, March 2013 - March 2018.  Source: TSI

Freight Transportation Services Index, March 2013 - March 2018. Source: TSI

Both the Freight TSI and the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) rose in each of the last four quarters although GDP generally grew faster, according to the department.

Just before those increases began, in the first quarter of 2017, the GDP grew more slowly, only 1.2%, while the Freight TSI declined. GDP growth exceeded Freight TSI growth by 1 percentage point in the second quarter of 2017 and by 1.5 points in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, the Freight TSI rose by 0.3 of a percentage point more than GDP. Growth in both measures decelerated again in the first quarter of 2018 with the TSI 0.7% rise trailing the GDP 2.3% growth rate by 1.6 percentage points.

The Freight TSI’s new all-time high is 5.2% higher than the pre-2017 high of 124.3 and 7.9% higher than the March 2017 level of 121.2. The levels for the last nine months, since July 2017, have equaled or exceeded 126, higher by 1.4% than in any month prior to July 2017.

On a quarterly basis, the index rose in each of the four quarters over the last year. This streak was the longest sequence of quarterly increases in four years. The 7.9% rise over the most recent four quarters was the largest four-quarter increase in eight years. The growth of 0.7% in the first quarter of 2018 was, however, a slowdown from the previous three quarterly increases.

Related: Unemployment Lowest Since 2000, Factory Activity Mixed

Evan Lockridge

Evan Lockridge

Business Contributing Editor

Trucking journalist since 1990, in the news business since early ‘80s.