The Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI), which is based on the amount of freight carried by the for-hire transportation industry, fell 0.1% in November from October, falling slightly after two consecutive monthly increases, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS).  From November 2019 to November 2020 the index fell 3.8% compared to a decline of 0.9% from November 2018 to November 2019 and a rise of 5.8% from November 2017 to November 2018 (Tables 1, 2, and 2A).

The level of for-hire freight shipments in November measured by the Freight TSI (132.7) was 6.3% below the all-time high level of 141.6 in August 2019 (Table 2A). BTS’ TSI records begin in 2000. See historical TSI data.

The October index was revised to 132.8 from 131.7 in last month’s release.  Monthly numbers for August and September were revised up slightly.

BTS is withholding the scheduled release of the passenger and combined indexes for November. The passenger index for November is a statistical estimate of airline passenger travel and other components based on historical trends up to October 2020. The statistical estimate does not fully account for the rapidly changing impacts of the coronavirus on the historical trend. Air freight for November 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 with the air freight estimate included. The October 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: The Freight TSI was almost unchanged in November, decreasing 0.1% from October due to declines in water and pipeline, despite growth in trucking, air freight, rail carload and rail intermodal. The November decrease took place against the background of mixed results in other indicators.

The Institute for Supply Management Manufacturing (ISM) index was down by 1.8 points to 59.3, indicating continued but slowing growth in manufacturing. The Federal Reserve Board Industrial Production (IP) Index grew by 0.4% in November reflecting increases of 0.8% in manufacturing and 2.3% in mining, while utilities decreased by 4.3%. Housing starts grew by 1.2%. Personal Income was down 1.1% - the Bureau of Economic Analysis noted that Personal Income was impacted by a slowing in Federal economic recovery payments as pandemic-related assistance programs continued to wind down.

Although the November Passenger TSI is being withheld because of the difficulty of estimating air passenger miles and other modes, the October index is now being released. The index declined by 0.9% from September to October, the first decrease following five months of recovery. It remained below any level the Passenger TSI had been before the pandemic for the eighth consecutive month. Air passenger and rail passenger declined in October, but transit increased.

Trend: The November decrease in the Freight index followed two months of growth, and was only the second decrease since April, leaving the index 5.6% above its April level. The index has increased in five of the last seven months, following three months of decline. TSI’s course through the pandemic has been a decline of 8.2% from January to April, a 5.7% rebound from April to July, a subsequent 1.0% decline from July to August and then an increase of 0.8% from August to November. For additional historical data, go to TSI data.

Index highs and lows: For-hire freight shipments in November 2020 (132.7) were 39.8% higher than the low in April 2009 during the recession (94.9). The November 2020 level was 6.3% below the historic peak reached in August 2019 (141.6) (Table 1A).

Year-to-date: For-hire freight shipments measured by the index were down 2.9% in November compared to the end of 2019 (Table 3).

Long-term trend: For-hire freight shipments are up 9.7% in the five years from November 2015 and are up 23.6% in the 10 years from November 2010 (Table 5). 

Same month of previous year: November 2020 for-hire freight shipments were down 3.8% from November 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 December 2020 index is scheduled for Feb. 10.

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.