Transportation Services Index

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Reduction in April 2020 Freight Movement Largest since 2009 Recession

Release Number: 
BTS 35-20
Date: Wednesday, June 10, 2020
 

The Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI), which is based on the amount of freight carried by the for-hire transportation industry, fell 7.7% in April from March, falling for the third consecutive month, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS). From April 2019 to April 2020, the index fell 10.0% compared to a rise of 2.7% from April 2018 to April 2019 and a rise of 8.0% from April 2017 to April 2018 (Tables 1, 2, and 2A).

(Seasonally Adjusted, Monthly Average of 2000 = 100)
MonthFreight TSI
Apr-15121.8
May-15122.0
Jun-15121.7
Jul-15122.6
Aug-15123.2
Sep-15123.2
Oct-15122.8
Nov-15120.9
Dec-15120.5
Jan-16122.4
Feb-16121.7
Mar-16120.7
Apr-16123.0
May-16122.3
Jun-16123.2
Jul-16125.7
Aug-16123.5
Sep-16122.2
Oct-16123.1
Nov-16123.2
Dec-16124.6
Jan-17124.0
Feb-17124.6
Mar-17125.1
Apr-17125.4
May-17125.8
Jun-17126.2
Jul-17128.4
Aug-17128.9
Sep-17128.6
Oct-17130.1
Nov-17131.6
Dec-17133.5
Jan-18131.4
Feb-18133.8
Mar-18135.7
Apr-18135.4
May-18136.3
Jun-18137.2
Jul-18135.9
Aug-18136.0
Sep-18137.9
Oct-18138.9
Nov-18139.3
Dec-18137.3
Jan-19138.6
Feb-19137.4
Mar-19138.2
Apr-19139.0
May-19139.3
Jun-19138.9
Jul-19139.6
Aug-19141.2
Sep-19137.7
Oct-19138.2
Nov-19137.9
Dec-19136.4
Jan-20136.9
Feb-20136.1
Mar-20135.6
Apr-20125.1
Source: 

Bureau of Transportation Statistics

The level of for-hire freight shipments in April measured by the Freight TSI (125.1) was 11.4% below the all-time high level of 141.2 in August 2019 (Table 2A). BTS’ TSI records begin in 2000. See historical TSI data.

The March index was revised to 135.6 from 136.8 in last month’s release.  Monthly numbers for January and February remain unchanged.

BTS is withholding the scheduled release of the passenger and combined indexes for April. The passenger index is a statistical estimate of airline passenger travel and other components based on historical trends up to March 2020. As a result, the estimates have yet to fully account for the impact of the coronavirus. Air freight is also a statistical estimate. Since air freight makes up a smaller part of the freight index, the freight TSI is being released as scheduled. The March passenger and combined indexes are available on the BTS website.

The Freight TSI measures the month-to-month changes in for-hire freight shipments by mode of transportation in tons and ton-miles, which are combined into one index. The index measures the output of the for-hire freight transportation industry and consists of data from for-hire trucking, rail, inland waterways, pipelines and air freight. The TSI is seasonally-adjusted to remove regular seasons from month-to-month comparisons.

Analysis: There were declines in all freight modes except pipeline. The decline in rail carloads was particularly steep at 14.0%, but there were significant declines in multiple modes which were also likely due to weakness in manufacturing and construction. The decline in (seasonally-adjusted) rail carloads was the steepest decline for that mode in the history of TSI. The Freight TSI decrease in April took place against the background of major declines in other indicators.

The Institute for Supply Management Manufacturing (ISM) index was down by 7.6 points to 41.5, indicating that manufacturing was contracting significantly faster in April than it had been in March. The Federal Reserve Board Industrial Production (IP) Index decreased 11.2% in April reflecting a decrease of 13.7% in manufacturing and smaller decreases in mining and utilities. This decline left manufacturing at its lowest level since 1997. Housing starts decreased by 30.1%.

Personal Income rose 10.5%, reflecting an increase in government social benefits as noted by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Although the April Passenger TSI is being withheld because of the difficulty of estimating air passenger miles and other modes, the March index is now being released. The index decline of 51.4% from February to March was unprecedented. There were large decreases in all the modes that make up the index - air, transit, and rail.

Trend: The April decrease in the Freight index was the largest monthly decrease since a 5.0% decline in March 2009, during the great recession. This large decrease followed two months of small declines and was the sixth decline in eight months, leaving TSI 11.4% below its all-time high of 141.2 in August 2019. The index is now at its lowest point since March 2017, from which it is unchanged.  The index remains above every level it attained before its high of 125.7 in July 2016. For additional historical data, go to TSI data.

Index highs and lows: For-hire freight shipments in April 2020 (125.1) were 31.8% higher than the low in April 2009 during the recession (94.9). The April 2020 level was 11.4% below the historic peak reached in August 2019 (141.2) (Table 1A).

Year-to-date: For-hire freight shipments measured by the index were down 8.3% in April compared to the end of 2019 (Table 3).

Long-term trend: For-hire freight shipments are up 2.7% in the five years from April 2015 and are up 17.6% in the 10 years from April 2010 (Table 5). 

Same month of previous year: April 2020 for-hire freight shipments were down 10.0% from April 2019 (Tables 4, 5).

The TSI has three seasonally-adjusted indexes that measure changes from the monthly average of the base year of 2000. The three indexes are freight shipments, passenger travel and a combined measure that merges the freight and passenger indexes. See Seasonally-Adjusted Transportation Data for numbers for individual modes. TSI includes data from 2000 to the present. Release of the May 2020 index is scheduled for July 9.

Revisions: Monthly data has changed from previous releases due to the use of concurrent seasonal analysis, which results in seasonal analysis factors changing as each month’s data are added.    

BTS research has shown a clear relationship between economic cycles and the Freight and Passenger Transportation Services Indexes. See a study of this relationship using smoothed and detrended TSI data. Researchers who wish to compare TSI over time with other economic indicators, can use the FRED database, which includes freight, passenger and combined TSI, and which makes it possible to easily graph TSI alongside the other series in that database. See TSI data on FRED.   

For charts and discussion on the relationship of the TSI to the economy, see Transportation as an Economic Indicator: Transportation Services Index.

A BTS report explaining the TSI, Transportation Services Index and the Economy, is available for download.

Table 1: Freight Transportation Services Index since October 2019
Percent Change from Previous Month
(Seasonally-Adjusted, Monthly Average of 2000 = 100)
Freight
 IndexPct. Change
October138.20.4
November137.9-0.2
December136.4-1.1
January136.90.4
February136.1-0.6
March135.6-0.4
April125.1-7.7

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

NOTE: Percent changes based on numbers prior to rounding.

Table 1A: Annual High and Low Points in Freight Transportation Services Index, 2009-2020

YearMonthPeakMonthBottom
2009December101.8April94.9
2016July125.7March120.7
2017December133.5January124.0
2018November139.3January131.4
2019August141.2December136.4
2020 (thru April)January136.9March125.1

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Table 2: Freight Transportation Services Index Monthly Changes, 2017-2020

Percent change from previous month

 
2017
% Change
2018
% Change
2019
% Change
2020
% Change
January-0.5-1.60.90.4
February0.51.8-0.9-0.6
March0.41.40.6-0.4
April0.2-0.20.6-7.7
May0.30.70.2 
June0.30.7-0.3 
July1.7-0.90.5 
August0.40.11.1 
September-0.21.4-2.5 
October1.20.70.4 
November1.20.3-0.2 
December1.4-1.4-1.1 

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Table 2A: Freight Transportation Services Index by Month, 2017-2020

 2017201820192020
January124.0131.4138.6136.9
February124.6133.8137.4136.1
March125.1135.7138.2135.6
April125.4135.4139.0125.1
May125.8136.3139.3 
June126.2137.2138.9 
July128.4135.9139.6 
August128.9136.0141.2 
September128.6137.9137.7 
October130.1138.9138.2 
November131.6129.3137.9 
December133.5137.3136.4 

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

 
Table 3: Freight Transportation Services Index Year-to-Date Change, 2011-2020
Percent change to April from December of the previous year
YearFreight
20111.5
2012-2.5
20132.5
20142.3
2015-1.0
20162.1
20170.6
20181.4
20191.2
2020-8.3

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Table 4: Freight Transportation Services Index from Year-to-Year
Percent Change in the April Freight TSI
(Monthly average of 2000 = 100)
 April Freight TSI
Percent change from
same month previous year
2011110.53.9
2012112.01.4
2013114.92.6
2014120.54.9
2015121.81.1
2016123.01.0
2017125.42.0
2018135.48.0
2019139.02.7
2020125.1-10.0

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

NOTE: Percent changes based on numbers prior to rounding.

Table 5: Freight Transportation Services Index from Previous Years
Percent Change to 2020 (April to April)
Since April        . . .Duration in yearsFreight TSI Percent change to April 2020
20191-10.0
20182-7.6
20173-0.2
201641.7
201552.7
201463.8
201378.9
2012811.7
2011913.2
20101017.6

SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Brief Explanation of the TSI

The Transportation Services Index (TSI) is a measure of the month-to-month changes in the output of services provided by the for-hire transportation industries.  The freight index measure changes in freight shipments while the passenger index measures changes in passenger travel.

The TSI tells us how the output of transportation services has increased or decreased from month to month. The index can be examined together with other economic indicators to produce a better understanding of the current and future course of the economy.   The movement of the index over time can be compared with other economic measures to understand the relationship of changes in transportation output to changes in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

           

The freight transportation index consists of:

For-hire trucking,
Railroad freight services (including rail based intermodal shipments such as containers on flat cars),
Inland waterways transportation,
Pipeline transportation (including principally petroleum and petroleum products and natural gas), and
Air freight.

The index does not include international or coastal waterborne movements, private trucking, courier services, or the US Postal Service.

The passenger transportation index consists of:

Local transit,
Intercity passenger rail, and
Passenger air transportation.

The index does not include intercity bus, sightseeing services, ferry services, taxi service, private automobile usage, or bicycling and other non-motorized transportation.

The TSI includes only domestic "for-hire" freight and passenger transportation. For-hire transportation consists of freight or passenger transport services provided by a firm to external customers for a fee. The TSI does not include taxi services, paid ride services in personal motor vehicles (e.g., Uber, Lyft, etc.), intercity bus services, in-house transportation (vehicles owned and operated by private firms for their own use), or noncommercial passenger travel (e.g., trips in the household car).

Updated: Wednesday, June 10, 2020