Cross-border freight in March sets a record high, signaling a return to normal

May 26, 2021

Tyson Fisher


Following a slow month in February, cross-border freight skyrocketed in March both month-to-month and year-to-year, setting a record high indicative of a pre-pandemic economy.

Compared to March 2020, cross-border freight was up significantly by 16% after a 0.1% decrease in February and a 3% decrease in January, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This marks the largest year-to-year increase by percentage since a 16.4% increase in February 2012.

The value of freight hauled across national borders increased by 19.5% compared with February, when cross-border freight went up by nearly 2% compared with the previous month. March’s significant monthly increase is the largest since last June. At that time, the economy rebounded from stay-at-home orders. Consequently, North American freight increased by more than 46% from the previous month. Not counting the pandemic, the largest monthly boost was a 23% increase in March 2011. Historically, cross-border freight typically goes up relatively high month-to-month in March.

March cross-border freight (trucking)
Truck cross-border freight value by state compared to February. Blue states denote an increase, while orange states denote a decrease. (Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics)

Consistent with the overall large cross-border freight increase from February, trucking freight in March was also way up.

Trucks carried nearly $74 billion of the nearly $115 billion of imports and exports in March, a more than 24% increase from February and an increase of 18% compared with March 2020.

Month-to-month, Canada truck freight increased by nearly 24%, whereas Mexico truck freight went up by 25%. Top truck commodities were electrical machinery (equipment and parts), computer-related machinery/parts, vehicles (other than railway), measuring/testing instruments and plastic/articles.

March’s cross-border freight total of nearly $115 billion is up nearly $19 billion from the previous month and increased by nearly $16 billion from March 2020. This sets a new record high for North American freight by value, indicating a return to a pre-pandemic economy.

All modes except pipeline experienced a month-to-month increase. Rail freight had the largest increase at 30% followed by airfreight (25%) and trucking. Pipeline freight experienced a significant decrease of more than 20%. That decrease is essentially a correction from an unusually high increase in February. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the value of mineral fuels exported to Mexico by pipeline in February was abnormally high due to price spikes resulting from the mid-February cold weather that caused widespread power outages in Texas and Mexico.

Nearly 58% of U.S.-Canada March cross-border freight was moved by trucks, followed by rail at more than 16%. Of the nearly $57 billion of freight moving in and out of Mexico, trucks carried 71.5% of the loads. LL