Net orders of dry van commercial trailers topped 17,126 units in October, according to data tracked by ACT Research Co., an order level 79% higher than the same month in 2009. This helped push trailer manufacturer backlogs up by over 5,000 units.

Kenny Vieth, partner and president of ACT, added that order growth in the commercial trailer market is across the board and not limited to just dry van models, as eight of the nine trailer categories tracked by ACT posted year-over-year growth.

“We’ve got a number of factors now coming together,” Vieth told Fleet Owner. “The first is that much of the trailer fleet – especially dry van models – is incredibly ancient and needs replacement. The second is that the supply/demand equilibrium between freight demand and available capacity has swung back into the favor of truckers. That means truckers are finally making money and thus have the cash to buy equipment.”

Vieth added that sales of commercial trailers also experienced a far steeper drop off over the last several years compared to trucks, meaning that average equipment age is far higher. For example, while the average age of Class 8 trucks in U.S. fleets is now 6.5 years – the highest in 30 years – U.S. fleet dry van trailers now average 8.5 years.

That higher average age is a direct result of a far more acute drop in sales, according to ACT, as trailer sales as a whole dropped to 79,432 units in 2009 – a nearly 50% drop from 144,377 units in 2008 and an over 75% decline from 277,398 units sold in 2006.

“By comparison, 2009 was the worst year of refrigerated trailer sales since 2001, while for dry van models, 2009 was the worst year of sales since 1963,” Vieth noted.

Another factor in the rise of average trailer unit age relates to the introduction of trailer tracking technology, he added. The ability to track trailers helped carriers improve unit productivity roughly by 15%, thus allowing them to lower their trailer-to-tractor ratio. “That boost in productivity, combined with falling freight volumes, significantly lowered demand for trailers over the last several years,” Vieth said.

Now, however, that “re-balancing” of trailer capacity is largely completed, he stressed, so fleets are now concentrating on replacing old equipment.

“October was only the second month since early 2007 that dry van net orders broke above what ACT considers to be the dry van replacement level, meaning carriers are just now starting to work towards catching up on their replacement cycles,” Vieth said.