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AMM | Keep On Trucking... If You Can Find a Flatbed

09.06.17 | AMM

The availability of trucks, particularly flatbed vehicles used to transport metals and other materials, such as building products, is likely to tighten, exacerbated by a shortage of drivers and the introduction of regulationsâ€"such as the electronic logging device (ELD) mandateâ€"against a background of rising freight volumes.

Estimates indicate that some 70 percent of the nation’s freight is moved by a fleet of nearly 32-million trucks and that tonnage has been increasing. The seasonally adjusted For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index of the American Trucking Association (ATA) registered 144.1 points in May, up 4.8 percent from a year earlier. The figure marked the largest year-over-year gain since November.

Bob Costello, chief economist for the Arlington, Va.-based trade association noted that flatbed trucks have registered the largest gains.

Jonathan Starks, chief operating officer for Bloomington, Ind.-based FTR Transportation Intelligence agreed, noting that volumes being hauled by dry van trucks have actually been fairly stable with only about three-percent, year-on-year growth while demand for flatbed trucks is a much stronger at 8- to 10-percent year-on-year.

Starks noted, however, that during the economic downturn, flatbed truck volumes fell further than those associated with other truck types. “So they have a deeper hole to dig themselves out of,” he noted.

Much of the recent pickup in flatbed demand is tied to the transport of construction materials rather than metals, Costello maintained. Recent statistics support his assessment.

The American Institute of Architects’ Architecture Billings Index, which reflects construction activity nine-to-twelve months into the future, recorded its fourth consecutive month of growth in May with a score of 53.0 points, up from 50.9 points in April. 

This pattern is expected to not only affect the ability of shippers to readily find the trucks they need to move their freight, but also result in higher freight costs for the shippers. It is also having a collateral effect in the form of greater selectivity on the part of some carriers in choosing what loads from which shippers they accept and even going so far as to “fire” customers that they do not view as being a “shipper of choice,” FTR’s Starks said.

Essentially, companies considered “shippers of choice” do whatever they can to get trucks in and out quicker as well as provide  truckers greater access to their facilities than is currently the case. “We used to have 24-hour-a-day access,” Cordin recalled. “Now there are more restrictions regarding hours of operations with some companies only allowing us to deliver or pickup freight from midnight to 6 AM,” he said.

To become more driver-friendly, the shipper needs to implement changes to their operations, Stark advised. “While we could see more willingness to do this going forward, at the moment, the majority are still not willing to do so,” he commented.

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