Cross-border Freight Shipments Declined 2.1 Percent in March

The Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI), which is based on the amount of freight carried by the for-hire transportation industry, fell 2.1% in March from the revised February index, falling for the second consecutive month, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS).

The March decline of 2.1% coupled with a larger 3.1% decline in February left the index down 5.1% since January and at the lowest level since June 2020. The February and March monthly declines were the two largest since the onset of the pandemic in April 2020.

From March 2020 to March 2021 the index fell 4.0% compared to a decline of 2.0% from March 2019 to March 2020 and an increase of 2.0% from March 2018 to March 2019 (Tables 1, 2, and 2A).

The level of for-hire freight shipments in March measured by the Freight TSI (130.0) was 8.1% below the all-time high level of 141.5 in August 2019 (Table 2A). BTS’ TSI records begin in 2000. See historical TSI data.

The February index was revised to 132.8 from 132.2 in last month’s release. The January index was revised down slightly.

BTS is withholding the scheduled release of the passenger and combined indexes for March. The passenger index for March is a statistical estimate of airline passenger travel and other components based on historical trends up to February 2021. The statistical estimate does not fully account for the rapidly changing impacts of the coronavirus on the historical trend. Air freight for March is also a statistical estimate. Since air freight makes up a smaller part of the freight index, the freight TSI is being released as scheduled with the air freight estimate included. The February passenger and combined indexes are available on the BTS website.

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 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 seasonal variation from month-to-month comparisons.

Analysis: The Freight TSI decreased 2.1% in March from February due to seasonally-adjusted decreases in truck tonnage and pipeline despite growth in water, rail carloads, rail intermodal, and air freight. The large decline in truck freight volumes, possibly due to supply chain issues, outweighed gains in other modes. The March decrease took place against the background of growth in other indicators from February to March.

The Federal Reserve Board Industrial Production (IP) Index grew 1.4% in March, reflecting increases of 2.7% in manufacturing and 5.3% in mining, while utilities decreased 11.4%. Housing starts were up 19.4%. Personal Income increased by 21.1% (the Bureau of Economic Analysis notes that Personal Income in March was impacted by the continued government response to COVID-19). The Institute for Supply Management Manufacturing (ISM) index was up 3.9 points to 64.7, indicating growing strength in manufacturing.

The fourth-quarter TSI decrease of 3.3% came in the context of continued quarterly GDP growth.

Although the March Passenger TSI is being withheld because of the difficulty of estimating airline passenger travel and other components, the February index is now being released. The index increased 9.2% from January to February following an increase of 9.3% in January. Air passenger, and rail passenger grew, while transit was down. The Passenger TSI remains above the levels of March 2020 through January 2021 though it has not returned to its level in February 2020, the last month before the impact of the pandemic. It remained below any level the Passenger TSI had been before the pandemic for the 12th consecutive month.

Trend: The March decline was the second consecutive decline for a cumulative decline of 5.1% since January. It was the second largest monthly decrease since April 2020. The freight TSI is now below its level of July 2020. The index is 8.1% below its record level of 141.5 in August 2019 and has decreased in 11 of the last 19 months since that peak. For additional historical data, go to TSI data.

Index highs and lows: For-hire freight shipments in March 2021 (130.0) were 37.0% higher than the low in April 2009 during the recession (94.9). The March 2021 level was 8.1% below the historic peak reached in August 2019 (141.5).

Year-to-date: For-hire freight shipments measured by the index were down 3.3% in March compared to the end of 2020 (Table 3).

Long-term trend: For-hire freight shipments are up 7.8% in the five years from March 2016 and are up 17.0% in the 10 years from March 2011 (Table 5).

Same month of previous year: March 2021 for-hire freight shipments were down 4.0% from March 2020 (Tables 4, 5).

1st quarter changes: The freight TSI fell 3.3% in the 1st quarter following two consecutive quarterly increases (Table 6).

The TSI has three seasonally adjusted indexes that measure changes from the monthly average of the base year of 2000. The three indexes are freight shipments, passenger travel and a combined measure that merges the freight and passenger indexes. See Seasonally-Adjusted Transportation Data for numbers for individual modes. TSI includes data from 2000 to the present. Release of the April 2021 index is scheduled for June 9.

Revisions: Monthly data has changed from previous releases due to the use of concurrent seasonal analysis, which results in seasonal analysis factors changing as each month’s data are added.

BTS research has shown a clear relationship between economic cycles and the Freight and Passenger Transportation Services Indexes. See a study of this relationship using smoothed and detrended TSI data. Researchers who wish to compare TSI over time with other economic indicators, can use the FRED database, which includes freight, passenger and combined TSI, and which makes it possible to easily graph TSI alongside the other series in that database. See TSI data on FRED.

For charts and discussion on the relationship of the TSI to the economy, see Transportation as an Economic Indicator: Transportation Services Index.

A BTS report explaining the TSI, Transportation Services Index and the Economy, is available for download.

Table 1: Freight Transportation Services Index Since September 2020
Percent Change from Previous Month
(Seasonally Adjusted, Monthly Average of 2000 = 100)
  Freight
Index Pct. Change  
September 132.1 0.5
October 132.9 0.6
November 132.5 -0.3
December 134.5 1.5
January 137.0 1.9
February 132.8 -3.1
March 130.0 -2.1
SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics
NOTE: Percent changes based on numbers prior to rounding.

 

Table 1A: Annual High and Low Points in Freight Transportation Services Index, 2009, 2017-2021
Year   Month Peak Month Bottom
2009 December 101.8 April 94.9
2017 December 133.4 January 123.9
2018 November 139.2 January 131.4
2019 August 141.5 December 136.5
2020 January 136.6 July 125.6
2021 (thru March) January 137.0 March 130.0
SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

 

Table 2: Freight Transportation Services Index Monthly Changes, 2018-2021
Percent change from previous month
  2018 2019 2020 2021
  % Change % Change % Change % Change
January -1.5 0.9 0.1 1.9
February 1.9 -0.7 -0.4 -3.1
March 1.2 0.5 -0.5 -2.1
April 0.1 0.9 -7.2  
May 0.5 -0.1 1.0  
June 0.5 -0.4 1.4  
July -0.8 0.7 3.4  
August 0.3 1.2 -1.1  
September 1.4 -2.4 0.5  
October 0.5 -0.1 0.6  
November 0.2 -0.1 -0.3  
December -1.4 -1.0 1.5  
SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

 

Table 2A: Freight Transportation Services Index by Month, 2018-2021
  2018 2019 2020 2021
January 131.4 138.5 136.6 137.0
February 133.9 137.5 136.1 132.8
March 135.5 138.2 135.4 130.0
April 135.6 139.5 125.6  
May 136.3 139.4 126.8  
June 137.0 138.8 128.6  
July 135.9 139.8 133.0  
August 136.3 141.5 131.5  
September 138.2 138.1 132.1  
October 138.9 138.0 132.9  
November 139.2 137.9 132.5  
December 137.3 136.5 134.5  
SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

 

Table 3: Freight Transportation Services Index Year-to-Date Change, 2012-2021
Percent change to March from December of the previous year
Year Freight
2012 -2.7
2013 3.4
2014 1.8
2015 -0.1
2016 0.1
2017 0.3
2018 1.6
2019 0.7
2020 -0.8
2021 -3.3
SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

 

Table 4: Freight Transportation Services Index from Year-to-Year
Percent change in the March Freight TSI
(Monthly average of 2000 = 100)
  March Freight TSI Percent change from same month previous year
2012 111.8 0.6
2013 115.9 3.7
2014 119.9 3.5
2015 123.0 2.6
2016 120.6 -2.0
2017 124.9 3.6
2018 135.5 8.5
2019 138.2 2.0
2020 135.4 -2.0
2021 130.0 -4.0
SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics
NOTE: Percent changes based on numbers prior to rounding.

 

Table 5: Freight Transportation Services Index from Previous Years 
Percent Change to 2021 (March to March)
Since March        . . . Duration in years Freight TSI Percent change to March 2021
2020 1 -4.0
2019 2 -5.9
2018 3 -4.1
2017 4 4.1
2016 5 7.8
2015 6 5.7
2014 7 8.4
2013 8 12.2
2012 9 16.3
2011 10 17.0
SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

 

Table 6: Freight Transportation Services Index Change by Quarter, 2012-2021  
Percent change from the last month of the previous quarter  
Year 1st Quarter
(Jan-Mar)
% Growth
2nd Quarter
(Apr-Jun)
% Growth
3rd Quarter
(Jul-Sep)
% Growth
4th Quarter
(Oct-Dec)
% Growth
   
2012 -2.7 1.8 -1.6 0.1  
2013 3.4 0.4 0.2 1.0  
2014 1.8 -0.2 1.8 1.0  
2015 -0.1 -1.1 1.6 -2.4  
2016 0.1 2.1 -0.5 1.6  
2017 0.3 0.9 2.3 3.5  
2018 1.6 1.1 0.9 -0.7  
2019 0.7 0.4 -0.5 -1.2  
2020 -0.8 -5.0 2.7 1.8  
2021 -3.3        
SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics