Trucks Lead the Way as Freight Shipments Rise to Record for Third Month

Forward-looking indicator bodes well for the U.S. economy, government statistical unit says.

The U.S. freight industry carried a record haul for a third consecutive month in September, according to a government index released this week that’s viewed as boding well for the overall economy. 

The Freight Transportation Services Index—based on the amount of freight carried by the for-hire transportation industry—reached an all-time monthly high of 129.2 in September, 0.2 percent above the prior high, hit in August, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. 

The freight index “has a forward-looking relationship to the economy, based on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ research examining past behavior,” explained Dave Smallen, the bureau’s director of public affairs. “In particular, downturns in the index lead recessions and slowdowns in the economy by several months,” he added.

The all-time high set in August came in 3.5 percent above the 124.9 level hit in July 2016, the highest level prior to 2017. September was the third all-time high in a row, and the fourth in five months, with its level 36.3 percent above the April 2009 low reached during the most recent recession.

The Freight index monitors 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 measure of output of the for-hire freight transportation industry consists of data from for-hire trucking, rail, inland waterways, pipelines and air freight. 

Significant increases in trucking and pipeline led the September increase as other modes declined, the bureau noted. 

A 2.4 percent increase in the freight index during the third quarter was consistent with the pace of growth in GDP, which was 3.0 percent in the third quarter. GDP growth had been 3.1 percent in second quarter, when the index also grew. GDP growth was slower in the first quarter of 2017, when the freight index declined.

For-hire freight shipments measured by the index were up 3.7 percent in September compared to the end of 2016.