John Neerhout Jr.: Boring the Chunnel
On the roster of Berkeley Engineering’s distinguished alumni, one can find John Neerhout Jr., a man in the center of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable engineering achievements: the construction of the rail link beneath the English Channel connecting Great Britain and France. The 31-mile Channel Tunnel, also known as the Chunnel or Eurotunnel, is considered the largest private construction project on record and was hailed as one of the seven modern Wonders of the World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Neerhout joined the Mining and Metals Division of Bechtel Corporation in 1966, about 13 years after earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. He began as a supervising engineer, rising through the company’s ranks over the next two decades to become executive vice president and director of the Bechtel Group. Bechtel had been brought in to manage the Channel Tunnel project, and in 1990, Neerhout came on as the project chief executive.
With massive tunnel-boring machines drilling an average of 984 feet per week, the project was finished in 1993. The Chunnel officially opened for service a year later at a ceremony with Queen Elizabeth II and French president François Mitterrand.
In a speech Neerhout gave at the University of Utah about the Channel Tunnel, he said “It was the technologist, in most cases an engineer, who had to bridge the diversity of issues, who became, as necessary, an educator, an environmentalist, a financier, a politician, a diplomat, or a local community advocate to ensure the success of such a vast project.”
The National Academy of Engineering, citing his contributions to engineering and construction of large mining and petroleum projects, elected Neerhout to its ranks in 1992. Three years later, he received similar honors from the United Kingdom when he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Neerhout endowed the Cheryl and John Neerhout Jr. Distinguished Professorship in Engineering in recognition of the stellar education he and his daughter (B.S.’79 ME) received at Berkeley Engineering.