KANSAS CITY — Shortages of truck drivers and railroad workers continue to plague the transportation industry and contribute to soaring freight costs for shippers. Fuel prices are up sharply, trade wars have complicated export movement of grain (and other products) and harvest of huge corn and soybean crops is underway. Meanwhile, Hurricane Florence briefly snarled logistics along the East coast.
In a nutshell, so far in 2018, rail grain carloads have been strong with secondary rail freight rates up from a year ago, barge grain movement has been down from a year ago (due mainly to persistent high water levels and lock repairs) but above the three-year average with barge freight rates up sharply, bulk grain ocean freight rates have increased and diesel fuel prices are up 19% from a year ago, which has boosted truck and rail fuel surcharges.
Hurricane Florence was devastating to many areas along the mid-Atlantic coast, shutting down ports, railroads and interstate highways. Port and terminal operations in the path of the storm were operational by the end of September while repairs on rail lines and highways continued. The storm had less of an impact on grain movement than did Hurricane Harvey a year earlier because the Texas and Louisiana Gulf region is a much more important outlet for export grain.
But overall, must of the focus on the transportation sector in 2018 has been, and remains, on the trucking industry. The mandate for the vast majority of trucks to use electronic logging devices (in place of paper “log books”) on Dec. 18, 2017, which was fully implemented as of April 1, 2018, brought to light the simmering problem of a truck driver shortage. While most of the initial chaos caused by E.L.D.s has since subsided, the focus on truck freight availability and costs continues.