A shortage of cargo-hauling trucks amid strong demand is pushing freight rates higher, the Wall Street Journal reported, and prompting some customers to delay shipment schedules.
That is reportedly putting more trucks on the nation's highways, and could affect states' roadside inspection efforts that often are managed by departments of transportation.
Many shippers that produce goods lock in their truck deliveries in advance through contracts with trucking companies, but others rely on the spot market and hire transportation on short notice.
In that spot market, the Journal said, "there were about 10 loads waiting to be moved for every available truck in the week ending Jan. 20, compared with three in the same week last year, according to online freight marketplace DAT Solutions LLC."
It added that spot rates for dry van truck carriage are more than 20 percent above their year-ago level, and indicated the upward pressure will also hit shippers' long-term contracts when their current agreements expire. "Analysts expect long-term contract rates that shippers negotiate with carriers to rise by between 5 percent and 8 percent this year," the Journal said.
The story pointed to various reasons that this is taking place, including a run of bad weather hitting at a time of strong demand, along with the impact of a new federal regulation.
"Freight volumes in December hit near-record levels for that time of year, on the back of a strengthening economy," the Journal reported. "Retailers are replenishing stocks after one of the strongest holiday sales seasons in recent years. Manufacturers are also shipping more cargo; in December, industrial production had the largest year-over-year gain since 2010, according to the Federal Reserve.
"What's more, bad weather and a new federal safety rule that took effect in December have crimped the supply of available trucks."
The rule requires truck operators to install electronic logging devices to maintain a record of drivers' hours-of-service, a rule that was drafted to try to curb reported examples of truckers operating beyond their legal service hours but reporting in paper logbooks that they are compliant. That can also help reduce crashes involving truckers driving while fatigued from lack of rest.
New reports say that since trucking fleets began adopting ELDs in December, some drivers have been parking their rigs earlier and filling rest areas rather than stretch their work days to reach the next destination. That has reportedly pressed some truck lines to put more rigs into service to and pressed shippers to keep more trailers or containers on hand to change out more quickly when trucks arrive.
The Journal said that since the ELD rule took effect, "prices shot up for some routes that now might take two days instead of one because of stricter timekeeping."
Across the country, authorities have begun checking trucks to make sure they have ELDs, but will wait until April to fully enforce it and order trucks out of service if they do not have the devices.
In addition, unexpectedly severe weather has at times added to the supply chain stress. The recent "bomb cyclone" weather pattern disrupted highway travel across a large swath of the Eastern Seaboard, the Journal noted. That storm dumped snow and iced roads from the Northeast down into the deep South, extending into northern Florida and at times turning parts of interstate highways into parking lots.
Meanwhile, as carriers monitor market conditions "trucking fleets are adding capacity," the story said, "but it can take months or even years to catch up with demand."
It also said that truckers "are getting pickier about which manufacturers and retailers they work with," and that freight-producing shippers that are known for long loading times "sometimes find it hard to convince truckers to pick up cargo at warehouses."
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