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Top story: Carrier supply and demand imbalance

In today's market, there's an imbalance between carrier supply and demand, driven by the surge of carriers entering during the Covid period. Despite a gradual decrease in carrier counts over the past year, achieving balance remains a challenge due to the lingering effects of increased competition and slower retraction.

temp controlled carrier

The current market is still in a state of over-supply, as there are more carriers available than there is demand for their services. This is due to a large overbuild of carriers that entered the market to capitalize on the high demand of freight moving during the Covid period (when many goods were in high demand). It is also due to the retraction of those additional carriers occurring much more slowly than in a typical cycle. As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, this slow attrition of carriers is partly due to higher cumulative profits amassed by owner operators after the pandemic when spot rates surged. This allowed many carriers to pay down their equipment loans and purchase their truck outright, affording these owner operators the ability to lower their cost basis and ultimately stay in the market longer. We have been seeing a decrease in carrier counts within the marketplace for over a year now, but due to the overwhelming increase in carriers in the back half of 2020 and throughout 2021, we expect many more will exit the market before balance is achieved.

We filtered the US FMCSA / DOT data on carrier authorities to show an approximate estimate of the active, for-hire market each month. When trending out this data, we were able to observe a “normal range” of carrier authorities dating back to 2006. The count of carriers stays within this range during all portions of the truckload cycle, regardless of whether it's over-supplied or under-supplied. This pattern was prevalent for 15 years, until it broke free from this trend in 2020. You can easily see this divergence as plotted in the chart below.


When pacing out recent rates of authority deceleration, we forecasted when we could expect the carrier community to come back in line with historic norms. As depicted above, you can see that we are nearing the normal range trendline, and we approximate that for-hire authorities will most likely be back within this expected range around the third quarter.

Carrier authorities are just one aspect of supply. This does not factor in several other things like active tractor counts, new truck orders, used truck prices, driver hirings, etc. Specific to tractor counts, since approximately 60% of carriers in the U.S. are owner-operators and most of the churn occurs within smaller carrier sizes (as barriers to enter the market as a small carrier are very low), we believe that using carrier authority count serves as a solid proxy. New Class 8 tractor orders remain stronger than normal for this stage in the cycle, but that can possibly be attributed to prebuying efforts ahead of the 2027 EPA regulations, while sales of Class 8 tractors follow a similar pattern but still in a weakening trend. Used truck prices are back to similar levels as they were during the soft 2019 market, less than half as costly as they were at their peak post-Covid. These factors support a nearing of the bottom of the cycle that is led by the number of carriers in the industry.

What does this mean for the U.S. truckload market? It is important to note that this forecast is just one side of the coin: supply. As far as demand goes, the industry consensus is that we will start to see volume increases starting in the third quarter, too. This demand, while positive y/y, is still expected to be rather modest. Without the continued attrition on the supply side, the subtle increase of volume alone would likely be able to be absorbed by the current carrier base resulting in a persistent soft market. This means that even if an increase in demand happens sooner than expected, a drawdown in carrier supply would likely still occur.

The timing of our carrier supply projections returning to historic norms aligns with our spot market forecast in the next section. To learn more about the carrier supply, market parity, or how this impacts your business, please contact your C.H. Robinson representative.

U.S. spot market forecasts 

Our 2024 dry van linehaul forecast is being slightly altered from the previously stated 4% y/y to 2% y/y growth.  The adjustment here is reflective of the slightly lower ‘floor’ during March and April. Our view of the future beyond that remains unchanged because of the factors mentioned above. Our initial 2024 forecast anticipated that the spot market would return to the bottom for pricing after the 2023 holidays, but that drop was delayed by nationwide winter storms. Showing just how much supply is still in the market, prices then rapidly returned to the bottom in February, where we remain. We expect rates to remain fairly close to this level until produce season starts to drive them upwards in May. As mentioned in the story above, we expect the excess carrier supply to have exited the market as we see carrier counts return to be in line with historically normal levels in the third quarter which, coupled with modest freight demand increases, we believe will result in increased rates


We are estimating the average 2023 linehaul carrier break-even at $1.65/mile. This estimate of average cost for carrier operations has proven less useful in this down-cycle due to many of the dynamics that we have noted in the past, primarily the increased cumulative profits amassed by many owner operators during the up-cycle shortly after the pandemic when spot pricing increased significantly. However, it is still important to estimate this break-even level, even if it differs significantly for different carrier segments, as it does ultimately set the floor for how low rates can go over the medium- to long-term. Essentially, with the market operating below cost for such an extended amount of time, causing many carriers to go out of business or forced to downsize, it demonstrates that pricing is unsustainable at current levels.

While we do not yet know where this break-even estimate goes in 2024, if we assume it remains flat with 2023 at $1.65/mile, this represents an almost two-fold increase in the annual rate of truckload operating cost inflation from a low 2% CAGR in the 10-year pre-pandemic period to a 4% CAGR from 2020-2024. (The break-even estimate is a product of American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) 2022 cost-per-mile operations cost and our analysis of 2023 operations costs of public truck lines.) 

Our 2024 refrigerated linehaul forecast similarly remains relatively unchanged for the back half of the year, although slightly adjusted downward for certain peaks, at 1% y/y growth. We expect the pattern to follow that of the dry van forecast as well, as the dynamics surrounding the temperature-controlled truckload marketplace are the same as those in the dry truckload space. 

Contract Truckload Environment

The contractual landscape has remained relatively unchanged since last month. The contract environment tends to follow the spot environment, so given our forecast above for spot pricing, we don’t see too much change within this space holistically for several months. Although one thing to keep in mind is the duration of said contracts, as longer-term commitments may see different pricing than shorter-term commitments.

The following insights are derived from TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson, a Transportation Management Systems (TMS) which offers a large portfolio of customers across diverse industries throughout the United States.

Contractual Route Guide Performance

Route Guide Depth (RGD) is an indicator of how the back-up transportation provider strategy works if the awarded provider rejects the tender. As displayed in the following chart, the RGD has remained fairly flat for approximately a year now. For long hauls more than 600 miles, the RGD in February 2024 was 1.22 (1 would be perfect performance and 2 would be very poor) which is slightly worse (2%) than the prior month of January at 1.20 but slightly better (3%) than February 2023’s RGD.

Overall, route guides are performing very well, with primary service providers accepting loads at pre-pandemic levels, and the first backup provider accepting rejected tenders most of the time. Yet, even in the softest of markets the RGD is not a perfect 1.0 but is rather hovering around the 1.20 mark. This historic chart demonstrates that even at the bottom of the market, there is still freight not being accepted, which our academic research shows is likely due to freight procurement processes.

As we anticipate tightening market conditions in the second half of the year, consider talking to your C.H. Robinson account team today about how they can help you properly segment your freight to make the best procurement decisions based on your freight characteristics. When the market tightens and tender rejections increase, having a pre-determined plan in place will help you avoid costly premiums on freight that will inevitably move in the spot market. 

Voice of the carrier from C.H. Robinson

C.H. Robinson has two customer communities, shipper customers and carrier customers. What follows are aggregated insights from conversations with carriers of all sizes to offer perspective into their top concerns over the past month.

Market insights

  • Bid activity remains high, which is seasonally expected, with carriers focusing on culling lanes that aren’t suitable in their network or don’t improve yield
  • Despite the high bid activity, carriers are pricing business at flat to slightly increased rates


  • Trailer costs have dropped significantly due to soft demand as trailer orders have decreased approximately 40% y/y, leaving trailer builds back at pandemic level lows
  • New truck costs are still high, especially in this portion of the market cycle


  • With the exception of certain nuanced circumstances, almost no carriers have immediate plans to add driver headcount
  • Driver turnover remains an ongoing issue
  • Driver application counts remain healthy, but finding quality drivers to backfill for natural attrition remains a challenge

A key value proposition of C.H. Robinson to our contract carriers is aggregating lane volume and demand pattern variability from our vast shipper network. This provides our carriers with more predictable volume from C.H. Robinson, and as a result, they are interested in and able to offer consistent capacity and market pricing with high performance. 

Engage your account teams for more information on how to leverage our scale.

Refrigerated truckload
Spot market rates continued to slide through February and leveling off in early March at extreme lows. The marketplace remains muted, and where pockets of tightness appear, they are doing so in an abbreviated, but volatile manner.


East Coast – Early February was busy with a strong floral season out of the Southeast. As that demand has subsided, market conditions have continued to soften across the entirety of the East Coast. We should see markets shift towards the end of March, as pockets of produce start to kick off. South Florida produce is the kickoff for domestic produce season and is a strong indicator of what to expect from a capacity climate across the country.

Central U.S. – Weather has remained mild throughout the North Central region driving a softening in the market quicker than normal. Many “protect from freeze” shippers transitioned back to ambient strategies because of warm weather earlier than expected. The South Central has had and will continue to have capacity readily available through the next month.

West Coast – The Pacific Northwest has felt some weather disruption, but the impacts have not been lasting. Intra and long-haul California markets remain very soft, and we expect rates will remain depressed through the month of March.

Work with your C.H. Robinson team to stay informed on regionalized opportunities and how to best schedule freight to capitalize on the best price and service. 

Flatbed truckload

Generally speaking, the flatbed market remains relatively soft; although we are seeing volume increases in localized geographies within the building construction materials market. These stronger construction numbers, which are outpacing other verticals/industries, has subsequently resulted in top transportation research firms increasing their forecasts for flatbed volumes and rates in 2024 y/y. In the near-term, capacity has been able to handle these localized loadings increases and since the additional volume is not nationwide yet, it has not yet added any upward pressures on costs despite this being the seasonal norm.

It's a great time to leverage CHR Flatbed capacity for projects. As the ground thaws and construction projects get back underway, there can be excessive "lumpy" demand due to installation schedules. We can help assist standing up batches of capacity quickly for short-term needs. Collaborate with your C.H. Robinson team to set yourself up for success.

Large LTL carriers have recently been increasing their footprint to position themselves better for future growth. LTL tonnage has been weak for some time now, with negative y/y aggregated growth from the publicly traded companies for 7 (soon to be 8) quarters now. The exit of Yellow from the marketplace helped to right-size the amount of demand available amongst the remaining carriers and LTL yields have improved since then for these publicly traded carriers. It’s only a matter of time before LTL tonnage begins to increase again and several carriers are preparing for that inevitability.

Old Dominion Freight Line (ODFL) recently opened their newest terminal in Eastern PA. This facility boasts 147 dock doors in Tannersville, PA, two hours West of New York City, in between Philadelphia and Scranton, PA. Southeastern Freight Lines (SEFL) also recently announced the opening of a new service center in Bowling Green, KY within their press release. This 45-dock door facility will replace the 23-dock door center. This expansion of dock doors is the second such announced YTD from SEFL, with the first in January consisting of 230 dock doors in Charlotte, NC, and follows two announcements made in Q4 2023 involving a total of 240 dock doors evenly split between Austin, TX and New Orleans, LA.

In growth by acquisition, TFI International recently announced their purchase of Hercules Forwarding Inc. in their press release, Chairman, President, and CEO Alain Bedard stated, “This bolt-on acquisition fortifies our US LTL portfolio while adding cross-border LTL into Canada, creating a partner for our Canada-to-US shipments while offering synergy opportunities on both sides of the border.”

Even truckload carrier juggernaut Knight-Swift edged further into the LTL space with the acquisition of ten more leased facilities from the second round of the Yellow terminal auction, which is additive to the 15 total terminal rights acquired in the first round.

To learn more about how C.H. Robinson can help you leverage the best service from these and other carriers, contact your account team.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, FedEx, like other carriers, was forced to suspend its money-back guarantees due to the unprecedented logistical challenges that swept across global supply chains. As the world adapted and stabilized, FedEx incrementally reintroduced guarantees for various services, starting with their next-day air delivery products. Their latest announcement marks a significant milestone, as FedEx now extends the reassurance of a money-back guarantee to its second-day morning air service, promising delivery by 10:30 a.m. on the second day. FedEx's decision closely follows a similar move by UPS Inc., which recently announced the return of its own guarantees for second-day morning service. This reflects a broader industry trend towards reinstating full-service commitments as carriers become more confident in their ability to meet delivery expectations.

Customers who opt for the second-day morning air service can once again ship with the confidence that their packages will arrive on time, or they will be eligible for a refund. This is particularly important for businesses that rely on timely deliveries for their operations, giving them greater control and peace of mind. Despite the positive development for air services, FedEx noted that the money-back guarantee for ground services remains suspended for now. For a listing of current FedEx service levels that are now eligible for the money back guarantee, reach out to your account team.

Volume growth holds

Despite a hit from winter weather across the US to start the year, we are seeing volume trending up. It appears as though the intermodal pricing has reached the bottom of its slide. It is expected by the second half of the year that we start to see y/y positive increases. Intermodal is on sale and right now is the time to lock in your rates for the year before the markets tighten. So far 2024 has seen a 5.2% y/y growth in IMDL volume. One factor driving this is a recovery at the west coast ports. They saw a 10.8% y/y increase so far in 2024. The West Coast import volumes were returning but with continuing issues with the Panama and Suez canals, the recovery is being expedited.

While volumes slowly recover across the rest of the nation, there are no capacity-constrained domestic container markets. Drayage and rail capacity is still abundant. As the rails and drayage providers see the volumes grow, the deep discounts we have been seeing are expected to temper thoughout the first half of the year.

Pricing prospects

The all in IMDL spot rate continues to be negative YOY. IMDL spot rates are 5% lower than at this point last year. Spot rates are rising slowly with the increased volume, but most analysts don’t expect them to turn positive until the second half of 2024.  

FTR's pricing pressure index projects 0.2% increases for contractual rates in 2024. The rails are still offering capacity in historically capacity deficit markets. Making commitments before the second half of 2024 is critical in markets like southern California and outbound Mexico before the market shifts back to historic norms.

Competing service to truckload

Rail transits continue to perform above the five-year average  on time to plan. The winter storms are in the rearview mirror, and it is now on the rails to keep speeds high as the volumes grow. Additionally, expedited service options provide savings with similar speeds to over the road in many lanes.

The railroads continue to look for unique solutions to get more containers on their networks. As we go through bid season, lock in your rates for 2024 or risk a rate increase in the second half of 2024.

Ports and inland transportation

General updates

There is growing concern about the future of East and Gulf Coast ports as the labor contract between the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) expires in September. The ILA, representing around 70,000 dockworkers, and the USMX, representing employers at 36 coastal ports, including major ones like the Port of New York and New Jersey, the Port of Savannah, and the Port of Houston, have faced challenges in negotiations, particularly regarding wage increases. The ILA has warned of a potential coastwide strike in October 2024 if an agreement is not reached by the expiration date. We will continue to monitor this situation and provide additional information as it becomes available.

A final rule issued by the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) establishes new requirements for how common carriers and marine terminal operators (MTOs) must bill for demurrage and detention charges, providing clarity on who can be billed, within what timeframe, and the process for disputing bills. A key provision of this rule determines that demurrage or detention invoices can only be issued to either: (1) the person for whose account the billing party provide ocean transportation or storage of cargo and who contracted with the billing party for the ocean transportation or storage of cargo; or (2) the “consignee,” defined as “the ultimate recipient of the cargo; the person to whom final delivery of the cargo is to be made.” Demurrage and detention bills cannot be issued to multiple parties simultaneously. Most of the rule takes effect on May 26, 2024.

Recently the FMC voted in support of an administrative law judge’s ruling that ocean carriers’ exclusive chassis designation violates federal law. Currently this is only affirmed in a few major hubs: Savannah, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Memphis, and Chicago, but it will likely spread to all markets throughout the year,pending potential appeals from either side. This is a win for most, but especially our motor carriers who have struggled to navigate a fragmented chassis industry. It means less restrictions on what chassis can sit under which box, which equates to more efficient throughput at container yards.

  • The Norfolk Southern and Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) announced an expansion of their interline services. This service creates a two-way solution for customers moving freight between South Florida and Charlotte, NC
  • We are seeing considerable challenges/congestion at CSX Fairburn in the Atlanta market with long dwell times mostly due to inoperable cranes. At times, carriers are only able to schedule containers that have been pre-mounted because their drivers cannot sit idle waiting for a live-mount. There is an increase of rail storage or driver wait time fees as some are sitting up to 5 hours. Similarly, we are seeing challenges at the NS Austell ramp in ATL as carriers continue to work through the new appointment scheduling process for empty terminations and load acquisitions. With containers arriving late on Friday or Saturday, with 24-hour free time carriers are not able to get appointments causing an increase in rail storage and demurrage.
  • East Coast drayage and logistics provider PortCity is developing an on-terminal transload facility at the Port of Wilmington in North Carolina to capture new north-south business now moving through other gateways. The planned 25,000-square-foot facility is due to open by the end of March he transload facility would provide an alternative to a long-haul dray from Wilmington, reducing transportation costs for customers.
  • The Port of Virginia expands shipping channel for larger vessels. The shipping channel is now open for two-way transit of ultra large vessels, with the aim of lowering idling time. This expansion, in addition to the Norfolk Harbor deepening project, is to be completed Q3 2025 and will make Norfolk the deepest and largest waterway on the US East Coast.
Central / Ohio Valley
  • Memphis - Memphis has improved. IMC Depot is progressed enough with their construction to reduce wait time, but the market is still hit or miss. The Memphis Pool of Choice (MPOC) chassis volume has improved drastically with the contributions of Milestone.
  • Chicago - Volume growth continues as Chicago sees a strong start to 2024.
  • Minneapolis/St Louis/Kansas City/Omaha - In MN with ONE moving to Flexivan chassis, they brought in about 100-150 chassis and as a result TRAC is moving chassis out of market (which unfortunately is causing a shortage of pool chassis). MN BNSF is also grounding boxes with volumes staying steady and fewer chassis.  For KC multiple carriers are reporting congestion and delays at the BN (Edgerton, KS ramp) - wait times exceeding 6 hours in many cases.  Omaha market carriers are reporting a lot of containers in stacks at the rail ramps causing delays and congestion still.
  • IMC Logistics, one of our key national carriers, is increasing its use of hydrogen-powered trucks, and introducing them to its California operations. IMC is adding to its clean truck fleet, using both battery-powered electric trucks and hydrogen-powered trucks in addition to only using company drivers in California to mitigate any concerns with the state’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) restrictions on independent contractors. IMC is showing that they can be innovative and understand that our customers are looking for us to partner with truckers who are proactively combating these potential regulatory disruptions in California.
  • Port of Los Angeles - Despite of the lower volumes, truckers are still reporting issues with securing appointment slots for container moves.
  • Oakland is reporting 7 vessels at berth, 2 vessels at anchorage with 7 more vessels to arrive in the next 48 hours. OICT has temporarily added a third shift each day to reduce congestion at the facility.
  • PNW Port of Seattle and Tacoma - International rail service through the NWSA continues to be fluid. Rail dwell for import containers across all on dock railyards averaged 2.5 days for the last eight weeks.

For a full market report on global forwarding, visit the C.H. Robinson Global Freight Market Insights.

Cross-border: U.S.—Canada

If we think about one of the core objectives for North American supply chains, it continues to be building supply chain resiliency. Nearshoring helps solve this problem. One of the main questions customers ask about nearshoring, “Is nearshoring only suitable for large businesses?” Not necessarily. While large businesses may have more resources to invest in nearshoring, small and medium-sized businesses can also benefit from this approach. In fact, 88% of small to mid-sized businesses will use closer to home suppliers by 2024.

Similar to trade from Mexico, the U.S. has seen an increase of imports coming from Canada with the nearshoring trend post-pandemic. The primary difference though is that this nearshoring trend seems to have tapered off from a Canada-to-United States perspective. A look into the United States census data reveals that the upward trend of Canadian freight imported into the U.S. has leveled off in 2023.


Starting off 2024, January southbound transportation is also showing a 3.3% decrease y/y and 0.2% m/m; although it is important to note that these figures are not seasonally adjusted. While the vast majority of nearshoring efforts are shifting to Mexico, Canada is at the forefront of electric battery production. Volkswagen's first North American electric vehicle (EV) battery plant is launching in St. Thomas, Ontario—a $16.3 billion dollar project starting in 2027. St. Thomas is 20 mins. from London, Ontario, which is located right between Detroit and Toronto. It was chosen due to its proximity to mineral supplies found in northern Ontario, its workforce, and the region's track record in manufacturing. This will be the world’s largest gigafactory. Viewing Statistics Canada, you can see that the trend for Vehicle parts moving exported to the United States has continued to grow in 2023, on pace for an estimated 34% y/y growth.


Consumer goods is another sector that is still exemplifying the nearshoring trend. In 2023, approximate growth y/y is estimated to be around 3.5%. While this growth is not as significant as the auto parts sector, it is still much stronger than the 3.5% decrease of all exports to the U.S. combined.


Even for January of 2024, Statistics Canada shows these growth trends continuing for the two industries.


The expectation is for demand of new manufacturing to continue, and for freight crossing the border to accelerate. C.H. Robinson is the largest cross-border provider of truckload transportation. Please seek out your account representative for capacity planning strategies designed to bring the most capacity possible to your supply chain with the greatest price stability. 

Cross-border: U.S.—Mexico

As nearshoring trends continue, trade between the U.S. and Mexico has increased with expectations of further growth and partnership moving forward.

The collaboration between the state of Nuevo Leon and the city of Laredo, Texas, aims to enhance border potential. Plans include expanding infrastructure and tax incentives for nearshoring, intended to transform the Colombia, MX-Laredo, TX border port into a global trade hub. Such initiatives are expected to stimulate growth in neighboring municipalities, and to add cross-border capacity to the Port of Laredo, which is now the #1 entry port for goods in the U.S.

As the automotive industry specifically experiences significant growth, Mexico saw a historic peak in car exports in February 2024, with a 22.6% increase from the previous year. With Mexico positioned as a key player in global automotive production and trade, the sector's expansion is expected to continue.

Additionally, bilateral trade between Mexico and the United States reached a record high in January 2024, with Mexico emerging as the top trading partner of the US. The automotive sector played a significant role in this achievement, with Mexico exporting goods worth $38.42 billion to the U.S. Furthermore, auto parts production hit a new record high in 2023, indicating the sector's resilience and growth potential, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in this sector grew 44% in 2023 compared to 2022. 18% of the cars sold in the United States are of Mexican origin, placing the country as the main supplier to the US market.

Overall, the investment announcements in Mexico for the first two months of 2024 signal a promising start to the year, with various sectors poised for growth and continued economic activity. This is expected to translate into increased demand for trucking services heading to both sides of the border. 

While it presents a wealth of opportunity, the rise of nearshoring and the increased trade present some additional complexities for Mexican cross-border carriers.

One such complexity is the recent appreciation of the Mexican peso against the U.S. dollar, which has risen 30% in the past 3 years. The appreciation is financially impacting carriers who are heavily dependent on billing in dollars. This coupled with increased operation expenses in different areas creates financial difficulties for carriers.

To deal with these financial pressures, carriers are prioritizing collaborative customers with good loading and unloading conditions and return loads going southbound. In some high demand areas like the Bajio and Puebla State we are seeing northbound-southbound imbalances of 6:1. Opportunities to haul imports from the United States to Mexico will potentially help carriers mitigate challenges, maintain competitiveness, and confront the tight financial situation described above. Open communication and collaboration among stakeholders is crucial for navigating the complex landscape. Talk to your C.H. Robinson representative about your shipments to and from Mexico and how to leverage our scale, footprint, and experience in cross-border shipping.

Diesel Fuel

Retail diesel's national USA average price per gallon of $4.04 in February is up from $3.85 in January, yet still lower than the $4.41 average from February 2023.  As depicted in the visual below, created based on the data provided by the EIA, you can see that fuel did spike in early February, but it has since been slowing easing back downward.  Despite the recent tempering of diesel rates after that momentary spike, crude oil prices have yet to fall back down to the levels that they were before that spike occurred. There are many factors that play into the cost of diesel, but crude oil prices are the largest, so there remains an upside risk for diesel if oil prices remain elevated or increase any further.

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