Despite a continuing uptick in freight volumes, most analysts still remain cautious about the trucking industry’s prospects for 2010 – especially given a growing disconnect between freight levels and commercial equipment orders.

On the freight side, the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) reported that its for-hire truck tonnage index jumped 3.1% in January, following a 1.3% increase in December 2009. Compared with January 2009, the tonnage index surged 5.7% – marking the best year-over-year reading since January 2005.

These index readings, coupled with anecdotal reports from carriers, indicate to ATA chief economist Bob Costello that both the trucking industry and the economy are clearly in a recovery mode. “While I don’t expect tonnage to continue growing as robustly as it did in January, the industry is finally moving in the right direction,” he said. “Although there are still risks that could throw the rebound off track, the likelihood of that happening continues to diminish.”

Yet the industry isn’t out of the woods yet. For all of 2009, ATA said its tonnage index was off 8.7%, revised downward from a previously reported 8.3%. That’s the largest annual decrease since a 12.3% plunge in 1982.

That data, according to other analysts, shows that a truly robust recovery is still a ways off. “You can have a good month, but you can’t look at look just a month’s worth of data and see any big trend developing,” Kenny Vieth, partner and senior analyst with ACT Research, told FleetOwner. “We’re not seeing a lifting of all boats here.”

“While freight is turning positive and expected U.S. GDP growth for 2010 is edging higher, the combination of excess capacity and the impact of the EPA [emissions] mandate will hold Class 8 equipment demand this year essentially to flat compared to 2009,” said Eric Starks, president of FTR Associates.

Starks told FleetOwner that as freight comes back into the market, improving volumes could absorb some, but not all, of the “equipment overhang” bedeviling trucking.

“While many would like to see a good upsurge in Class 8 demand this year because of the improving economy, our analysis continues to see a disconnect between the 2010 freight and equipment production outlooks,” he explained. “We continue to caution against optimism especially in the first half of the year, because of the huge overhang in excess, idle equipment.”

The same concerns are prevalent on the trailer side of the industry’s equipment ledger, said ACT’s Vieth. January 2010 commercial trailer net orders were up 10% from January 2008 and relatively consistent with weak recent trends, he noted, but performance within individual trailer segments varied widely from strong to weak.

Flatbed and heavy lowbed markets, both closely tied to the construction sector, posted very weak net orders, added Vieth, with reefer trailers along with tank and dump trailers posting stronger net order numbers in January.

“Consistent with what we are seeing in the overall economy, sector performance can vary materially while the overall economy trudges slowly forward,” he said. “The outlook for trailer production going forward should be slightly positive as backlogs begin to build and inventories remain relatively low. But doing ’better’ is really only a relative term here . In large measure, the [trailer manufacturing] industry is still sucking air.”