Scared drivers press on toward looming freight cliff

Driver Henry Albert

A train coming to a sudden stop is how veteran driver Henry Albert describes what truckers will soon face in seeking freight loads to haul.

“When the front of a train stops, the slack between the couplers comes out,” he said. “I can see for the first time that there are trucks coming out of the equation.”

Trucking companies last week began to accept loads they would have rejected two weeks ago. There are fewer loads to choose from as the coronavirus pandemic shuts down all but essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies. Manufacturers of most expensive items like cars and trucks are shut down. Their suppliers have no choice but to cease production.

The Outbound Tender Volume Index began to slide last week after peaking on Monday, March 23. The number of available freight loads is expected to decline dramatically as the coronavirus pandemic continues., (FreightWaves/SONAR/OTVI.USA)

“All of the auto plants are down. Nobody is shopping at the malls for clothes or furniture,” Albert said. “Stick it with a fork. It’s done.”

Driver perspectives

Albert was one of several drivers who spoke with FreightWaves about how they are coping with the present and planning for the future.

“You just try to stay away from people. Everybody’s scared,” said Carla Dickey, a 33-year veteran driver. “If you aren’t scared, you’re foolish.”

For Dickey, who drives a refrigerated trailer for Buckley Transportation based in Bashear, Texas, having a microwave oven and refrigerator in her sleeper cab promotes a form of sheltering in place as she delivers hatchery eggs, coffee creamers and produce.

“I’m 63 years old,” Dickey said. “I don’t need to catch this stuff.”

She has all but given up purchasing food on the road as restaurants close dining rooms while maintaining carryout, drive-thru and some curb service with designated pickup for truckers. 

Dickey’s husband is laid off from his job at a car dealership. She takes food from home with her on the road.

“My job is pretty secure,” she said.

Alec Costerus is less sure about his. Driving a load of plastic plumbing parts from Aurora, Colorado, to Stockton, California on Friday, he had no return load scheduled.

“My future is as long as this trip lasts,” he said. “I am waiting for agriculture demand to pick up.”

Costerus gets his loads from third-party logistics provider Landstar System Inc. (NASDAQ: LSTR), which usually means consistent work. But bidding is fierce for new contracts.  

“I’m looking on the load boards,” he said. “There are loads up to Washington, but that is just going to send me into a hole.”

Washington was the first U.S. state with a concentration of COVID-19 cases, a health risk for someone traveling there. It also means practically no outbound freight. 

New York, New York

None of the drivers who spoke with FreightWaves wanted to drive a load to New York, where the coronavirus spread leads the nation.

“It’s not worth the aggravation. I’m not gonna go,” said Dickey, adding that Buckley doesn’t have many New York routes.

Load rejections climb as the coronavirus spread worsens in New York City. (FreightWaves SONAR/OTRI.NY)

The Ohio-based independent driving team of Stephen Halsted and Sandy Goche has sworn off New York and California during the pandemic. As freight expeditors, they staged near the Indiana-Michigan border this week waiting to pick up a load of non coronavirus-related medical equipment.

Albert, who consistently drives between Laredo, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, delivering parts for a major truck manufacturer, said accepting a load to New York would require a big premium because the trailer likely would return empty.

“If there was a time to drive a truck to New York, this would be the time to do it,” he said, referring to the lack of rush traffic and bottlenecks.

Costerus felt safer driving loads to lower infection areas like Billings, Montana and South Dakota, less-populated states which reported COVID-19 cases later and in lower numbers than other states.

“Essentially there is no safe place anymore,” he said. “I stopped in Kansas and I used a napkin to grab a door handle. I walk through restaurants with my arms up like a surgeon.”

The coming cliff

Albert began seeing signs of the slowdown when he reserved an overnight parking spot in Hammond, Louisiana earlier this week. The lot filled much later than usual. Ample spaces were available for trucks that weeks earlier would have “creatively” parked nearby for the night.

He still has loads of replacement truck parts destined for aftermarket outlets deemed essential for keeping freight moving. But with original equipment demand frozen, plants cannot justify making only replacement parts for the long term.

Groceries need replenishing, but not because people are eating more, Albert said. It’s because they are eating differently. With sit-down restaurants closed, some of those deliveries are diverted to grocery loads.

“Flatbed will fall off pretty quick because construction is going to come to a stop,” he said. “What are you going to do? You can’t haul clothes to people if they aren’t buying. 

“This is the easiest I ever had it in my [trucking] life,” Albert said. “But I think that’s about to dry up. Monday is going to be a different world. It’s going to hit hard and fast when it hits. Hopefully, it’s going to hit hard and fast when we come out of this.”