Don't Judge This Man Too Harshly; Gary Hart's Stupidity Caused a Terrible Rail Crash but Paul Barker Says He Cannot Help Thinking, 'There but for the Grace of God ...'

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GARY Hart's main error, as his car drifted into the Great Heck train disaster, in which 10 people died, was not to have ensured he was the director of Railtrack or a train-operating company. We've not seen any of these in court, facing charges of causing death at Paddington or Hatfield.

And, if they were and were found guilty, do you think the judge would warn them that they faced substantial terms of imprisonment? Answers, please, on the back of a postage stamp.

Hart was, of course, stupid - and as it turned out, catastrophically stupid.

But there is, just as obviously, no sense in which he intended or could foresee the outcome of his stupidity. Where does his crime lie on a graph which might also include the cases of drunken drivers who mow down senior citizens on pedestrian crossings and get off with a fine or community service? The graph could also include verdicts and sentences like those delivered last week at Hull Crown Court on the thuggish Leeds United players and their friends, where celebrity appears to have been regarded as an argument in mitigation: a shameful episode in the history of the English judicial system.

In the minds of Gary Hart's jury, and of the judge who's now expected to deliver sentence in January, is he paying, by default, for the recent catalogue of other rail horrors which have gone unpunished by law? Is he, in a word, a scapegoat?

The Health and Safety Executive's initial report said that the disaster at Great Heck, near Selby, was a "wholly exceptional" accident. It was due not only to Hart's lack of sleep, but also to a cruel combination of coincidences. In the first impact, the GNER Newcastle-to-King's Cross passenger train hit Hart's Land Rover at 117mph. This might have led only to painful injuries if, after careering along upright off the track, the passenger train hadn't met, head on, a freight train coming the other way, at 47mph, laden with a thousand tons of imported coal. Chaos and carnage ensued.

No one could watch the grieving widows who appeared on BBC1's special documentary last Thursday evening without deep sympathy for their plight, and deep admiration for how they, at least, were trying to remake their lives.

I'm not making Clinton-like remarks about "sharing their pain". Their pain was their own; and this, and memories, were all they were left with. The young son of the Freightliner co-driver, killed in the crash, said that he now looks away if he ever sees a goods train.

It was a terrible event.

That's one verdict nothing should, or can, diminish. But in even the most dreadful circumstances, the punishment - and the opprobrium - must fit the crime.

Hart lied about falling asleep. But who of us, in such appalling circumstances, wouldn't have tried to defend ourselves? He also comes across as what, in my native West Riding, we used to call "brussen" - in other words, overbearingly self-confident. His boast to the police that "my life is 1,000mph; it's just the way I live" couldn't have been worse phrased. At Great Heck, 164mph, the cumulative-speed of the colliding trains, was quite enough to crush bodies and mangle limbs. …