Flatbed trucking has been flatlining. While an uptick in consumer demand helped fill the trailers of other carriers before the holidays, the most industrial of industrial truckers struggled with the continuing slump in construction.
Take U.S. housing starts. Construction of new homes was down 12.4 percent in November compared to the same month in 2008, and 52 percent from November 2007, at 547,000 units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The comparison to 2007 underscores how much freight has slipped from flatbed trailers.
“Flatbed is a pretty meaningful percentage of our business, but overall, it’s one of the most anemic sectors of the trucking market,” said Chris O’Brien, vice president of transportation for $8.6 billion non-asset transportation giant C.H. Robinson Worldwide.
The flatbed industry does about $17 billion in business a year, according to SJ Consulting, and its fortunes are strapped to lumber, steel and other industrial supplies, commodities shipped by industries that O’Brien said “haven’t recovered all that much.”
It’s an important concern for O’Brien, as C.H. Robinson contracts with thousands of carriers with flatbed equipment to provide capacity.
“There are a lot of smaller carriers we rely on that have gone out of business” over the course of the three-year downturn in freight shipping, O’Brien said. “A lot of flatbed carriers have other business, too,” and they’ve shifted tractors to capture that freight.
Arrow Trucking was one that didn’t make it to 2010, providing the most spectacular crash-and-burn trucking company shutdown shippers have seen in years — at least since the collapse of Consolidated Freightways in 2002. The Tulsa, Okla.-based carrier went belly up suddenly Dec. 22, stranding more than 1,000 drivers across the country and leaving a trail of bounced paychecks, unpaid taxes and bills and snapped credit lines, as well as hundreds of shippers struggling to find their freight.
Another trucking bankruptcy in the last weeks of 2009 was Carlen Transport of Hampden, Maine, a smaller company with estimated revenue of $16 million in 2008, but still the largest flatbed hauler in the state — a leading source of lumber.
“We’re tied very closely to the building and construction industry, and it’s been soft,” owner Lenny Peters told the Bangor Daily News. By the time it closed Dec. 30, Carlen was losing 8 cents a mile on every mile it ran, Peters told the newspaper.
Many flatbed carriers are doing their best to survive by seeking new types of freight or offering new services. “If we had to pick one thing out there that looked pretty good in flatbed, it would be wind towers,” O’Brien said.
He also sees rising demand for what C.H. Robinson and its carriers call flatbed LTL service. “Each flatbed load, whether it takes up a whole trailer or 10 feet of one, has typically been shipped alone,” O’Brien said. “But when the economy is down, orders get lighter and smaller, and people are looking for savings. We’re starting to offer partial trailers and space by the foot for flatbed loads, with multistop pickups and deliveries.”
Contact William B. Cassidy at email@example.com.