Multiple factors have combined at this point in time to relieve the linehaul capacity crunch, according to TransCore DAT freight analyst Mark Montague. Writing on the company’s Freight Talk blog, he points out that while “recent freight patterns have shown peak demand in the second quarter of this year as opposed to the historical trend of a third-quarter peak. Yet here we are, well into the second quarter, and things are humming along nicely with plenty of available trucks.”

As Montague sees it, the capacity crunch has eased thanks to the recovering—albeit slowly--  economy  as well as due to capacity being available via rail intermodal and the lack of disruptive weather this spring.

He also pointed out that diesel prices are down from this time a year ago and the short-term outlook calls for  prices to fall further. And that means ”less pressure on small carriers that don’t adjust well to spiking fuel costs—and fewer bankruptcies.”

The upshot is that right now a balance has been struck between supply and demand—and, no surprise, that’s affecting rates.

 “Without capacity pressure, carriers aren’t getting the rate bump they typically expect this time of year,” said Montague .

He noted that a comparison of per-mile linehaul rates drawn from the DAT Truckload Rate Index  (with fuel surcharges removed) shows that as of the publication date in May of this year compared to a year ago, van rates have risen 2.3%, flatbed rates have remained flat and reefer rates have declined 1.9%.

“Rates are trending up now,” Montague continued, “ but with a load-to-truck ratio of around 3.0 nationwide, there is still plenty of van capacity in most places around the United States.” He noted that load-to-truck ratios are derived from postings on the DAT Load Boards, with a range of 2.5 to 3.0 considered “neutral.”

As for flatbed freight, Montague reported that “movements were robust in the first quarter, with favorable weather helping freight to move ‘ahead of season.’ Perhaps this early season shipping has led to the lull in the second quarter,” he theorized. “Although flatbed linehaul rates are now near their 2011 peak, there’s no apparent pressure to push rates much higher.”

But where reefer freight is at he called a “real puzzle.” On the one hand, he explained, the favorable weather experienced early in the year “helped to nurture good volumes and rates out of California, Florida, and the Deep South, yet overall reefer rates are still 2% lower than they were last May.”

Taking a shot at analyzing that conundrum , Montague noted that  one theory suggests a drawn-out harvest season is responsible. “Farmers in northern states like Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin planted late due to unseasonable cold. Also, drought has hurt some areas. Demand is not as concentrated as it might be otherwise. Yet refrigerated carriers I’ve spoken with remain optimistic about this shipping season.”

Montague also observed that “things can change quickly on the spot market.” And according to TransCore DAT analyst Peggy Dorf’s recent post on Freight Talk,  April saw the DAT North American Freight Index  achieve the highest volume in a single month since the Index was launched back in 1996.

“On a year-over-year basis, volume increased 17%,” reported  Dorf. “Compared to March, the increase was 3.5%.  The monthly DAT North American Freight Index reflects spot market freight availability on TransCore's DAT Network of Load Boards in the United States and LoadLink in Canada.”

But she noted  that using DAT Trendlines to consider only loads in the U.S., a 12% increase was recorded  compared to March and an increase of the same amount compared to April 2011.

“Spot market freight rates likewise increased in April, compared to March,” Dorf also pointed out. “Rates for dry vans increased 3.1%, flatbed rates gained 4.9% and reefer rates rose 5.5% month over month. Compared to April 2011, spot market rates remained relatively stable, rising 0.1% for vans and 1.2% for flatbeds while rates declined 1.8% for reefers.”