OSAKA (Kyodo) West Japan Railway Co. was hit by another embarrassing revelation Wednesday that may call into question the railway’s safety mindset.

Drivers of trains on central Osaka’s belt line have been found to have taped over the in-cab speaker for sound alerts in apparent attempts to mute the sound, JR West sources said.

The sound alert — a voice recording saying, “Halt, halt” — comes from a speaker near the driver’s seat. The automatic train stop system installed in trains issues the alarm every time a train approaches a station. If a driver fails to activate the brakes, the ATS stops the train.

The questionable practice continued at least from late June until earlier this month on 24 trains on the Osaka Loop Line as well as the Hanwa Line connecting southern Osaka Prefecture with northern Wakayama Prefecture, according to the sources.

It was only last month that a former JR West conductor was arrested on suspicion of deliberately disabling safety equipment on the trains he had been operating.

Hirokazu Fujita, 49, allegedly removed a fuse from the standby power supply of an emergency radio system in the driver’s cab. He removed the fuses from dozens of trains, police said.

As to the latest case, however, a JR West spokesman brushed aside accusations that sealing speakers mars JR West’s safety regimen.

“We believe the train drivers may have tried to control the volume of the sound alert,” the spokesman said. “We don’t see it as an act to disrupt our operations. It has no impact on our safety.”

Some of the speakers, however, were so tightly sealed it was hard to recognize any sounds coming from them, sources said.

The questionable practice was first discovered in late June during checks on train equipment after a driver, who was apparently unaware of the practice, reported he could not hear any sound alerts.

“If some train drivers say the sound alert is too loud, we will improve the equipment,” the JR West spokesman said.

JR West has been trying to improve its tarnished corporate image following the 2005 crash of an overspeeding commuter train in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, that killed 106 passengers and the driver.

Experts have partially blamed JR West’s corporate culture, deemed closed and punitive to those who make mistakes, for the accident.

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