FLOATING WITH THE CURRENT

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
HIGH IN the sky, near Marton in Lincolnshire, Martin Sankey toys with the body electric. He's a "live-linesman", one of 12 who works for the National Grid Company, and he's doing what his job's title implies: routine maintenance on the 9000km of overhead transmission line in Britain, without having had the lines switched off; when, in fact, they're alive and crackling.

Sankey and his trolley reached their destination by helicopter, lowered by non- conductive rope (for safety's sake, there are two pilots and two engines in the helicopter). When, last July, I tried my hand at live-lining on the same rig on which Sankey trained, the men at the NGC's high-voltage laboratory at Leatherhead, in Surrey, briefed me carefully, sat me in a metal seat, gave me a "hot stick" - a long insulated pole that would separate me from nearly half-a-million volts - with which to work and began to winch me up a practice pylon. Like Sankey and his colleagues, I was dressed, from top to toe, in a £600 white worksuit. It would, they assured me, act as a "Faraday cage"; the 25 per cent of fine metal fibre woven into the wear-resistant fabric would short circuit the current. In fact, current would flow harmlessly round me, not through me - that, at least, was the theory. "You may feel a tingle... " they told me. My task was simple. Bolted into my worksuit was a lead that terminated in what looked like a giant metal clothes peg. When aloft, I was to clip this to the electrical "bushing" - the terminal. As my gently swaying seat neared the bushing, sparks seven or eight inches long flashed and crackled from my hands, feet and elbows. Like a Nordic god, I could cast thunderbolts. I snapped on the clothes peg. The noisy pyrotechnics ceased, and so did the tingling. I was energised to the potential of the system: live-lining at 400 kilovolts, and perfectly safe. The tingling, jangling, crackling fun started up again when I disconnected and began my descent to terra firma.

Live-line working in earnest is new to Britain, but long-established in China (there, women have made their way into a traditionally masculine preserve), Canada, Russia and France. French and Canadian studies in particular have convinced the NGC that it is not exposing its staff to any unexpected hazards, such as electromagnetic radiation. For the NGC and its equivalents abroad, the benefits of live-lining are obvious: maintenance can be a costly business, and if the lines have to be switched off for routine repair, power has to be re-routed - not always an easy task. Up there along the lines, in the thick of the elements, it is the live-linesmen's task to replace the plastic spacers that hold the cables together as they harden with age and grow less able to absorb the shocks of the swaying conductors. It's their job, too, to clean the long, fragile-looking strings of ceramic insulators, each three-quarters of a tonne in weight, that hang from the pylons like Christmas tree decorations.

For Sankey and his colleagues, too, there's the wind and the weather to be dealt with, as well as the power and the glory and the awesome potential of the grid. Somehow, you don't think it's a challenge that they'll shirk; these men are an lite. To paraphrase Byron, they are striking the electric chain.

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