Net orders for Class 8 trucks and commercial trailers remain on a roll as freight demand continues to exceed capacity, helping carriers generate cash for a long-overdue replacement of their aging fleets.

“The commercial trucking fleet is ancient as carriers went several years – four in the case of trailers – without replacing their equipment,” Kenny Vieth, president and senior analyst with ACT Research Co., told Fleet Owner. “This frenzy we’re seeing in orders also reflects that carriers now have the necessary cash to buy equipment.”

According to ACT’s preliminary data, net orders for heavy-duty Class 8 trucks for North American markets climbed to 38,200 units in April – a 158% increase from the same month in 2010 – and represents the largest monthly order intake since March 2006.

The firm added that net orders for trailers in March were 21% higher that February and 33% higher than January. ACT also noted that trailer shipments for the first quarter of 2011 were up 109% compared to the same quarter in 2010.

Frank Maly, ACT’s director of commercial vehicle transportation analysis and research, added that net orders for trailer have now grown for 18 consecutive months, as well as for 19 out of the past 20, and are now 98% above the level at this time in 2010.

“Trailer shipments, up 109% year-to-date, are growing at an even stronger pace. Additionally, backlogs continue to grow,” he pointed out. “The stage is set for solid industry performance for the remainder of 2011 and throughout 2012.”

Trucking should be able to afford the cost of this rapidly escalating equipment changeover for some time, as capacity remains tight in the face of growing freight demand, allowing fleets to charge higher prices.

For example, the Trucking Conditions Index (TCI) compiled by FTR Associates reached 13.3 in March from 9.92 in February – and any TCI reading above 10 is an indication that volumes, prices and margins are in a good range for trucking companies, noted Eric Starks, FTR’s president.

“During the first months of 2011, the fundamentals of the balance between the supply and demand for truck transport was obscured by the normal seasonal weakness in demand,” he explained. “Now that we are moving into the higher freight [volume] months, the dimensions of the capacity situation are beginning to come into sharper focus as we expected.”

He believes that capacity shortage will enable trucking revenues to outpace the significant increases in trucking costs, including higher driver wages, fuel prices and more expensive equipment.

“The list of positive drivers leading to [these] order spikes is long: Healthy freight, increasing trucker profits, pent-up replacement demand, rising used equipment prices, improving credit worthiness, rising prices for new vehicles, and lead times for new equipment that have pushed out to the end of the year,” added Vieth. “And if that was not enough, there is the accelerated depreciation schedule for 2011 to consider.”