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On October 11, my company co-hosted the 2017 Surface Transportation Summit with my partners at Newcom Business Media. I am very pleased to report that we had another packed house for what has become the premier educational and networking event in Freight Transportation in Canada.

The day was again kicked off by one of Canada’s leading economists, Carlos Gomes of Scotiabank and by two investment analysts, Walter Spracklin, CFA, Equity Research Analyst - Transportation Sector, RBC Capital Markets and John Larkin, CFA, Managing Director and Head, Transportation Capital Markets Research, Stifel Financial Corp., who provided an American perspective. These gentlemen highlighted that 2018 will be a year of economic growth. This economic growth, coupled with the ELD mandate and the limited supply of quality drivers in the United States, will translate into tight capacity and higher freight rates.

One of the slides that caught my eye was the one inserted above from the John Larkin presentation. John’s views are consistent with what one of the largest US trucking operators, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, is telling its shipper customers. They are advising them to budget for transportation cost increases as high as “10 percent or more” as the peak fall distribution season and electronic logging mandate intensify a driver shortage. “This is one of the highest periods of turbulence and volatility in supply we have ever experienced, and we don’t think it will abate any time soon,” John Roberts, president and CEO, and Shelley Simpson, chief commercial officer, said in a letter to J.B. Hunt customers.

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We have been hearing about the possibility of a trucking capacity shortage for several years. While there have been sporadic shortages in specific geographic areas, for particular modes, the predicted massive shortage never materialized. This year may be different.

Two major hurricanes caused major damage to homes and infrastructure in Texas, Florida and adjoining areas. Drivers and trucks are required in these areas to transport building materials, appliances, electric grids, and other needed supplies. Some drivers will likely take construction jobs to aid with the rebuilding effort and increase their earnings.

The economies of Canada and the United States are in good shape with historically low unemployment and solid GDP growth. Then there is the Electronic Logging (ELD) Device mandate that will restrict the utilization of some trucks and push some drivers out of the industry. This unique confluence of variables is likely to make an already tight capacity situation even tighter.

What can shippers do to secure the capacity they need to keep their supply chains flowing and serve their customers? Here are two suggestions.

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Economic conditions are solid as we approach the fourth quarter of 2017. Unemployment is low and companies are hiring. Demand for freight transportation services should be strong during the fall and holiday seasons. As we enter this typically heavy shipping period, shippers need to contend with a range of variables that are shaping the supply and demand for freight transportation services.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

 Two natural disasters have had a dramatic effect on Texas, Florida, and the surrounding states. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, two of the most powerful hurricanes in years, have created significant destruction to power grids, infrastructure, homes, and their contents. Repairing, replacing, and rebuilding will consume significant transportation resources, lumber, roofing materials, electrical equipment, appliances, paint, and other materials. These activities will continue during and after the heavy fall shipping season.

The ELD mandate

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This has been a challenging month. Hurricane Harvey caused huge damage in southeast Texas and Hurricane Irma is expected to cause major damage to Florida and the east coast of the United States (as it did to several islands in the Caribbean). We should not forget the recent forest fires in British Columbia and California. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and ice storms seem to be occurring with much greater regularity and ferocity. These natural disasters have been very disruptive to the smooth flow of people, goods and services for many companies. They have also made life difficult for supply chain professionals.

Of course, disruptions to supply chains can come from factors other than weather or natural disasters. Quality control problems, piracy, export restrictions, and computer system hacking are just some of the factors that can come into play. To make matters worse, most of these disruptions are unpredictable in timing and scope. Each shipper has to make an assessment of the potential risks to their supply chains and make recovery plans.

According to Patthira Siriwan, senior project manager for supply chain development in North America for Damco, the combined logistics brand for A.P. Moller-Maersk, supply chain risks can be categorized into five groups: operational, social, natural, economy and political/legal. Damco defines supply chain risk management as “attempts to identify risks and quantify their commercial financial exposures as well as mitigate potential disruptions at each node and lane in the supply chain.” Supply chain risk models can vary from the rudimentary to the sophisticated. In the case of the latter, complex “what if” analyses can be performed. This allows the shipper and/or receiver to identify potential trouble spots and map out alternative supply chain strategies.

In an article in the Journal of Commerce, Siriwan indicated that shippers tend to focus on “factors with the biggest impact on their supply chain, such as on-time performance, supplier lead time variability and carriers by origin or trade lane.” Shippers need to perform some sort of probability analysis on the impacts of each potential disruption, with a particular focus on alternative vendors, carriers, origin points and ports and destination ports. Looking ahead to the balance of 2017, there are some major predictable (tropical storm Jose) and unpredictable risks that could drive up supply chain and transportation costs. The latter could include the impact on fuel costs as a result of unrest in Venezuela or war in the Middle East or war with North Korea.

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As the long, slow recovery from the Great Recession continues, shippers and carriers have become used to modest economic growth. Demand for freight services has been steady but not robust. The muted demand for freight services has not put undo pressure on truck capacity; rate increases have been limited in recent years. This may be about to change.

Regulations have placed constraints on the management of trucking companies, particularly full load carriers. The Hours of Service regulations coupled with the ELD (electronic logging device) mandate are placing limits on the number of hours that a driver can legally operate a truck. These directives limit truck capacity. The difficulties in finding quality drivers and the high turnover ratio among current drivers provides additional challenges for many truck fleets. To address the potential erosion in capacity, truckers are applying a variety of technologies.

Good quality transportation management systems are allowing truckers to better manage their routes and balance their lanes. Dimensional scanners are helping LTL carriers manage the space available on their trailers by matching freight rates to cube utilization. ELD technology provides carriers with information on how long their drivers and equipment are held up at customers’ facilities. The net result of all this is that small parcel, LTL and truckload carriers can be much more accurate in tailoring their freight rates to the “carrier friendliness” of their clients.

How can shippers become more "carrier friendly”?  Here are a few items to consider.

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