U.S. Freight Rose 0.5 Percent in March

The Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI), which is based on the amount of freight carried by the for-hire transportation industry, rose 0.5% in March from February, rising after a one-month decline, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS). From March 2019 to March 2020, the index fell 0.9% compared to a rise of 1.8% from March 2018 to March 2019 and a rise of 8.4% from March 2017 to March 2018.

BTS is withholding the scheduled release of the passenger and combined indexes for March. The passenger index is a statistical estimate of airline passenger travel and other components based on historical trends up to February 2019. As a result, the estimates have yet to fully account for the impact of the coronavirus. Air freight 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. 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 seasons from month-to-month comparisons.

Analysis: The Freight TSI increased in March from February due to growth in air freight, trucking and water, despite declines in rail carload, rail intermodal and pipeline. The TSI rise was likely due to growth in shipping in the first part of the month. The increase for the month took place against a background of decline in other indicators driven largely by the impact of the COVID-19 virus in the latter part of the month.

Personal Income decreased by 2.0% while housing starts decreased by 22.3%. The Institute for Supply Management Manufacturing (ISM) index was down by 1.0 point to 49.1, indicating a shift from slow growth to contraction in the manufacturing sector. The Federal Reserve Board Industrial Production (IP) Index decreased 5.4% in March reflecting a decrease of 6.3% in manufacturing and smaller decreases in mining and utilities. The decreases for total industrial production and for manufacturing were both the largest since 1946. The ISM manufacturing index is based on a survey of 800 supply chain executives on production, orders, deliveries, and employment, while the Federal Reserve IP index is based on estimated physical output using a range of output measures that the Federal Reserve considers reliable. Comparisons between patterns in the ISM manufacturing and the Federal Reserve IP index should be done with caution.

Trend: The 0.5% March increase in the Freight Index was a return to growth after a decrease in February. March was the fourth month in a row that Freight TSI remained in a relatively narrow range, below the levels it had held from September 2018 to November 2019. However, the index remained above any level before June 2018. Despite peaks and dips in the 21 months after June 2018, the March 2020 index was at almost the same level as at the start of that period. For additional historical data, go to TSI data.

Index highs and lows: For-hire freight shipments in March 2020 (136.8) were 44.2% higher than the low in April 2009 during the recession (94.9). The March 2020 level was 3.1% below the historic peak reached in August 2019 (141.2).

Year-to-date: For-hire freight shipments measured by the index were up 0.2% in March compared to the end of 2019.

Long-term trend: For-hire freight shipments are up 11.2% in the five years from March 2015 and are up 29.7% in the 10 years from March 2010.

Same month of previous year: March 2020 for-hire freight shipments were down 0.9% from March 2019.

1st quarter changes: The freight TSI rose 0.2% in the 1st quarter (Table 10). It was the first quarterly increase following two consecutive declines in the third and fourth quarters of 2019.

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 index is scheduled for June 10.

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.

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

Table 1: Freight Transportation Services Index since September 2019

Percent Change from Previous Month

(Seasonally Adjusted, Monthly Average of 2000 = 100)

  Freight
Index Pct. Change 
September 137.8 -2.4
October 138.2 0.3
November 138.0 -0.1
December 136.5 -1.1
January 136.9 0.3
February 136.1 -0.6
March 136.8 0.5

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, 2009-2020

Year   Month Peak Month Bottom
2009 December 101.8 April 94.9
2016 July 125.7 March 120.6
2017 December 133.6 January 124.0
2018 November 139.4 January 131.4
2019 August 141.2 December 136.5
2020 (thru March) January 136.9 February 136.1

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Table 2: Freight Transportation Services Index Monthly Changes, 2017-2020

Percent change from previous month

  2017 2018 2019 2020
  % Change % Change % Change % Change
January -0.5 -1.6 0.9 0.3
February 0.4 1.7 -1.0 -0.6
March 0.5 1.5 0.6 0.5
April 0.4 0.0 0.9  
May 0.2 0.5 -0.1  
June 0.2 0.6 -0.2  
July 1.8 -0.9 0.5  
August 0.3 0.1 1.1  
September -0.1 1.4 -2.4  
October 1.1 0.7 0.3  
November 1.2 0.4 -0.1  
December 1.4 -1.4 -1.1  

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Table 2A: Freight Transportation Services Index by Month, 2017-2020

  2017 2018 2019 2020
January 124.0 131.4 138.6 136.9
February 124.5 133.6 137.2 136.1
March 125.1 135.6 138.0 136.8
April 125.6 135.6 139.3  
May 125.8 136.3 139.2  
June 126.1 137.1 138.9  
July 128.4 135.9 139.6  
August 128.8 136.0 141.2  
September 128.7 137.9 137.8  
October 130.1 138.9 138.2  
November 131.7 139.4 138.0  
December 133.6 137.4 136.5  

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Table 3: Freight Transportation Services Index Year-to-Date Change, 2011-2020

Percent change to March from December of the previous year

Year Freight
2011 2.0
2012 -2.7
2013 3.5
2014 1.8
2015 0.0
2016 0.1
2017 0.4
2018 1.5
2019 0.4
2020 0.2

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
2011 111.1 5.3
2012 111.8 0.6
2013 116.0 3.8
2014 119.9 3.4
2015 123.0 2.6
2016 120.6 -2.0
2017 125.1 3.7
2018 135.6 8.4
2019 138.0 1.8
2020 136.8 -0.9

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 2020 (March to March)

Since March        . . . Duration in years Freight TSI Percent change to March 2020
2019 1 -0.9
2018 2 0.9
2017 3 9.4
2016 4 13.4
2015 5 11.2
2014 6 14.1
2013 7 17.9
2012 8 22.4
2011 9 23.1
2010 10 29.7

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Table 6: Freight Transportation Services Index Change by Quarter, 2011-2020

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  
 
2011 2.0 -0.6 0.9 3.1  
2012 -2.7 1.8 -1.5 0.0  
2013 3.5 0.4 0.0 1.1  
2014 1.8 -0.1 1.6 1.1  
2015 0.0 -1.1 1.2 -2.2  
2016 0.1 2.2 -0.8 2.0  
2017 0.4 0.8 2.1 3.8  
2018 1.5 1.1 0.6 -0.4  
2019 0.4 0.7 -0.8 -0.9  
2020 0.2        

 SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Brief Explanation of the TSI

The Transportation Services Index (TSI) is a measure of the month-to-month changes in the output of services provided by the for-hire transportation industries.  The freight index measure changes in freight shipments while the passenger index measures changes in passenger travel.

The TSI tells us how the output of transportation services has increased or decreased from month to month. The index can be examined together with other economic indicators to produce a better understanding of the current and future course of the economy.   The movement of the index over time can be compared with other economic measures to understand the relationship of changes in transportation output to changes in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The freight transportation index consists of:

  • For-hire trucking,
  • Railroad freight services (including rail based intermodal shipments such as containers on flat cars),
  • Inland waterways transportation,
  • Pipeline transportation (including principally petroleum and petroleum products and natural gas), and
  • Air freight.
  • The index does not include international or coastal waterborne movements, private trucking, courier services, or the US Postal Service.

 

The passenger transportation index consists of:

  • Local transit,
  • Intercity passenger rail, and
  • Passenger air transportation.
  • The index does not include intercity bus, sightseeing services, ferry services, taxi service, private automobile usage, or bicycling and other non-motorized transportation.

The TSI includes only domestic “for-hire” freight and passenger transportation. For-hire transportation consists of freight or passenger transport services provided by a firm to external customers for a fee. The TSI does not include taxi services, paid ride services in personal motor vehicles (e.g., Uber, Lyft, etc.), intercity bus services, in-house transportation (vehicles owned and operated by private firms for their own use), or noncommercial passenger travel (e.g., trips in the household car).