Late last year, I questioned whether intermodal still deserves to be considered a growth area within surface transportation, asserting that its growth status has been diminished, if not demolished. Of course, no judgement on that debate was ever expected to be rendered during the first two months of 2020 and questions regarding intermodal's secular growth remain. However, the latest public comments and data on intermodal from the Class I railroads, their intermodal partners and FreightWaves data paint a picture of an industry that will likely struggle to attract freight away from the trucking industry, at least until the much-anticipated capacity-driven improvement in the truckload industry kicks in.
On its earnings call, J.B. Hunt described a domestic intermodal picture that caused me to wonder why a shipper would use intermodal in this market.
J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. (NASDAQ: JBHT) described domestic intermodal customers as demanding intermodal service levels that are essentially indistinguishable from trucking while still expecting a rate discount from trucking that is similar to what shippers have received historically (i.e., 10%-15%). Management then described a trucking marketplace as being so highly competitive with intermodal that it is difficult to price at any discount to trucking (at least in the eastern U.S.) while still earning an acceptable margin on the ever-rising wholesale rates paid for capacity on the Class I railroads.
What incentive does a shipper then have to shift freight from truck to intermodal? Perhaps only as a hedge against a shortage of truckload capacity later in the year or to add to a checklist of "green" initiatives. For those reasons, several of Hub Group's intermodal customers converted a portion of their transportation spend back to trucking from intermodal within the last year. While Hub Group expects that lost volume to return to intermodal, the shift clearly underscores the competitive nature of domestic intermodal and the difficulty in growing intermodal volume in the current transportation marketplace.
Both intermodal and truckload spot rates have weakened since their respective fall peak seasons
It's a shippers' market during this year's bid season on annual intermodal contracts.
The intermodal bid season in the spring typically follows the market trends of the prior fall's intermodal peak season. Comments on last fall's intermodal peak season ranged from "there really is no peak" to "muted" to "an intense, but very short peak season." Accordingly, Hub Group expects intermodal pricing to be down for 2020 as a whole given its outlook for year-over-year declines in pricing on intermodal contracts negotiated during the first half of the year. Since the intermodal contract bid season for the company is front-half loaded (over 80% of its intermodal contracts are negotiated during the first half of the year), that pricing pressure will likely not be fully offset by an improvement in the intermodal market during the second half of the year. And that is true even if the much-anticipated capacity-driven improvement in the truckload market comes to fruition.
Intermodal spot rates are down year-over-year in most major lanes.
Class I railroads remain unwilling to reduce freight rates to attract incremental volume
Class I railroad management teams continue to suggest that cutting intermodal rates in the short-term to attract incremental freight would only make it more difficult to raise rates later on those same lanes to targeted levels in a stronger freight market. Railroad management teams are also quick to highlight the recent strength in service levels, with certain railroad management teams going as far as to say that intermodal doesn't need to be priced at any discount at all to trucking because service levels are so strong. That doesn't surprise me, given that in the past 15 years I can think of very few instances of the Class I railroads cutting rates for any reason. When it did happen it was for very specific reasons, such as for export coal that would not have moved otherwise. Therefore, for a significant rate spread between intermodal and trucking to emerge, it will have to come from truck rates strengthening.
CSX touting its improved on-time performance
*Trip Plan Performance measures meeting end-to-end customer commitments based on a specific arrival time.
Source: CSX company data
Rising railroad-purchased transportation costs are making it difficult for domestic intermodal providers to maintain their gross margins in the current weak truck market.
The major domestic intermodal providers, such as J.B. Hunt, Hub Group and Schneider, are in a difficult spot. In order to maintain or expand margins, domestic intermodal companies have to price intermodal services to shippers at a pace that exceeds the pace of rate increases they pay to the railroads. In the current market, with intermodal contracts likely pricing below year-ago levels, and with the railroads continuing to raise the wholesale costs of intermodal capacity, domestic intermodal providers risk having their margins squeezed. Accordingly, Hub Group is expecting contraction in its intermodal gross margin in 2020 relative to 2019.
Truckload rates rising this year is the emerging consensus
The positive volume outlook that most carriers have for domestic intermodal volume in 2020 is dependent upon an improvement in the truck rates in the second half of the year; FreightWaves explains why that expectation is reasonable here.
Despite describing an intermodal market characterized by many factors that make intermodal volume growth difficult, as described above, J.B. Hunt nevertheless guided to positive intermodal volume growth this year. However, the company also stated that it does not plan to expand its domestic container fleet this year, citing container turns that are below targeted levels. Management's point regarding container turns is well taken, but that still suggests to me that management's expected intermodal volume growth this year is fairly minimal. This is because not adding containers is fairly unusual for a company that has amassed a fleet of 89,000 pieces of trailing equipment (primarily 53' domestic containers) in its intermodal segment. That lack of planned container growth this year is part of an industry-wide trend. TTX management stated that they know of only 2,000 net domestic container additions this year with nearly all 2020 equipment deliveries being put toward replacement.
Most carriers are expecting positive intermodal volumes year-over-year in 2020
Hub Group also expects intermodal volume growth in 2020, with year-over-year growth guidance up in the low-to-mid single-digit range despite intermodal getting off to a slow start in the first quarter. Hub Group cites easing comparisons as the year progresses that includes both the lack of a spring peak season last year and a muted fall intermodal peak season. Hub also cited an expected improvement in the truckload market. On a year-over-year basis, I am already seeing an improvement in the truckload market as shown in the table below.
SONAR data already shows capacity-driven improvement in the dry van truckload market
Source: FreightWaves research analysis of SONAR data
Railroad service is strong and there is ample railroad capacity, so an improved truckload market is poised to be a catalyst for domestic intermodal, assuming it comes to fruition.
It would be a misnomer to declare intermodal as having the potential to be a relief valve for tight truck capacity; intermodal traffic is concentrated in dense lanes anchored by major cities. The top 7 lanes comprise approximately two-thirds of all intermodal volume. But, the intermodal-compatible lanes would benefit from a stronger truck market. Rail service has never been better, a sentiment expressed most clearly by Hub Group's management. They also highlighted the ample capacity available on intermodal routes and the expectation that strong rail service should continue even with a pickup in volume.
This is because the railroads have created a great deal of capacity by utilizing their networks and equipment more efficiently in the past few years. Rail service metrics, such as intermodal velocity shown below, bear that out. Of course, strong intermodal service levels are easier to achieve with lower volume levels, such as those that were seen in 2019, with overall rail traffic down 5% year-over-year.
Intermodal rail speeds higher across the board amid capacity excesses
Image Sourced from Pixabay