Freight movement in the U.S. has risen by nearly 30 percent since the end of the recession, according to data recently released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS).
The data also showed that five of six major freight modes grew between June 2009 – the official end of the recession – and December 2016.
First published in 2004, the seasonally-adjusted indexed modal data that comprises BTS’ Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI) measures the volume of freight and passenger transportation services provided monthly by the for-hire transportation sector. It tracks the month-to-month changes in for-hire freight shipments in tons and ton-miles, which are combined into one index. The index measures the output of the for-hire freight transportation industry and consists of data from for-hire trucking, rail, inland waterways, pipelines and air freight. The TSI is seasonally-adjusted to remove regular seasons from month-to-month comparisons.
Rail intermodal experienced the biggest post-recession gains, at 50.9 percent, followed by trucking at 37.8 percent, pipeline at 29.6 percent, waterborne at 23.2 percent, and air freight at 21.7 percent. During this period the overall freight TSI rose 29.7 percent.
The sole exception was rail carloads, which declined 0.8 percent. It was noted that the decline in rail carload shipments corresponds with a decline in coal shipments. Total coal shipped by Class I railroads peaked in 2008 at 878.6 million tons, dropped to 787.6 in 2009, and continued to fall to 638.1 million tons in 2015.
All modes had declined during the recession, as the freight TSI fell 16.3 percent from January 2008 to its low point in April 2009. The biggest decline during that time was in the air freight index, which declined 26.5 percent; followed by rail carloads, -23.0 percent; waterborne, -18.6 percent; rail intermodal, -18.1 percent; trucking, -14.5 percent; and pipeline, -4.7 percent.
BTS has reviewed recent movement of freight and determined that transportation services, as measured by the freight TSI, continue to foreshadow the economy. The freight TSI tends to turn in advance of slowdowns and accelerations in economic growth. The most recent data show two economic accelerations following the recession; the first from June 2009 to December 2012 and the second from July 2013 to December 2014. The freight TSI led both accelerations.
Growth cycles highlight accelerations and decelerations in the economy that take place within the larger business cycles (periods of expansion and contraction in the economy). Like business cycles, growth cycles have turning points. Turning points signal the end points of the expansions and recessions of business cycles, and in the case of growth cycles, they signal the endpoints of accelerations and decelerations within the growth cycles.
The relationship between the freight TSI and growth cycles changed in 2012. The freight TSI reached a peak in December 2011 and turned downwards – 12 months in advance of an economic deceleration that began in December 2012. The freight TSI turned again, hitting a trough in October 2012, before the growth cycle peaked in December 2012 and turned downwards. Historically, the freight TSI had not hit a trough and turned upward before the onset of an economic deceleration. The economic deceleration began in December 2012 and ended in July 2013. The freight TSI peaked in December 2014 and turned downward at the same time as the growth cycle.