TAIPEI (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, XINHUA) - A Taiwan express train with almost 500 aboard derailed in a tunnel on Friday morning (April 2), killing at least 50 passengers - the youngest victim is six years old - and injuring 146 in one of the island's worst rail tragedies in 40 years.
The train had apparently hit a truck that slid off a nearby road leading to a construction site.
The Taroko Express was travelling from Taipei to the south-eastern city of Taitung when it derailed north of tourist hot spot Hualien around 9.30am local time, said the National Fire Agency.
The train, which has eight coaches, was carrying many tourists and people heading home to be with family at the start of a four-day long weekend amid the Qing Ming tomb-sweeping holiday.
Transportation and Communications Minister Lin Chia-lung told reporters at the accident scene that the train was carrying 496 people.
Taiwan media said that many people were standing as the train was full, and they were thrown about when it crashed, and showed pictures of survivors being led out the tunnel.
Images of the crash scene showed carriages inside the tunnel ripped apart from the impact, while others crumpled, hindering rescuers from reaching passengers.
The 44-year-old train driver was killed in the derailment, United Daily News reported. He was earlier thought to be 33 years old. His assistant, aged 32, also died in the crash.
By mid-afternoon no one was still trapped, though the fire department said it had found body parts, meaning the number of those killed, who included the driver, was likely to rise.
“People just fell all over each other, on top of one another,” a woman who survived the crash told domestic television. “It was terrifying. There were whole families there.”
Taiwan’s government said there were 496 people on the train, including 120 without seats.
Many were tourists and people heading home at the start of a traditional long weekend holiday to tend to family graves. One French citizen was amongst the dead, officials said.
The train was travelling from Taipei, the capital, to the southeastern city of Taitung.
It came off the rails north of the eastern city of Hualien after hitting a truck that had slid off a road from a nearby construction site, Feng Hui-sheng, the Taiwan Railways Administration’s deputy director, told reporters.
Feng said the manager of the site, which was stabilising the mountainside to prevent landslides, visited around 9am local time and stopped his truck in front of the site office.
“At present it is suspected because the vehicle wasn’t braked properly, it slid for around 20 metres along the site access road and entered the eastern trunk line,” he added.
The official Central News Agency said police had taken in the manager for questioning.
The fire department showed a picture of what appeared to be wreckage of the truck beside the derailed train, with an aerial image of one end of the train still on the track next to the construction site.
“Our train crashed into a truck,” one man said in a video aired on Taiwanese television, showing pictures of the wreckage. “The truck came falling down.”
Part of the train was outside the tunnel and passengers in carriages still in the tunnel had to be led to safety, Taiwan Railways Administration said.
The train was plunged into darkness after it derailed and many passengers lost their sense of direction, EBC News reported. Some of them did not know what to do immediately after the crash while others tried to escape via the roof of the train.
Passengers told EBC News that the train braked several times just before the derailment. On impact, it shook violently and many people were thrown forward.
Images showed an injured passenger being stretchered out of the crash scene, her head and neck in a brace. Passengers were also seen gathering suitcases and bags in a tilted, derailed carriage while others walked out of the tunnel on the roof of the train.
Rescuers found 81 people who were seriously or slightly injured and took them to several hospitals for treatment, according to Taiwan Railways Administration.
President Tsai Ing-wen has ordered the relevant departments to offer their best rescue efforts, and instructed the transportation ministry as well as Taiwan Railways Administration to deal with impacted traffic arrangements, Presidential Office spokesman Chang Tun-han said in text message.
“It’s regrettable that an accident happened on the first day of holidays, leading to heavy casualties. I share the sorrow with fellow countrymen,” said Ms Tsai.
Taiwan last saw a major train derailment in October 2018, when the Puyuma Express came off the rails in eastern Yilan country, killing 18 and injuring almost 200.
In a statement, Transport Minister Lin said the railway administration had implemented more than 100 items of reform since the Puyuma accident. But they are obviously not enough, he added.
“I will surely shoulder all political responsibility," Mr Lin said.
The American Institute of Taiwan, which handles United States' ties with the island, expressed its "deepest condolences to the victims, families, and communities impacted by today’s tragic train derailment".
It said on Facebook: "We wish the people of Taiwan peace and comfort during this difficult time."
A Chinese mainland spokesman on Friday expressed condolences and sympathy to the casualties. “The mainland is highly concerned about the rescue progress,” said Mr Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council.
Taiwan’s mountainous east coast is a tourist destination.
The railway that snakes down from Taipei hugs the coast and is known for its tunnels, in one of which the crash took place. The link to Taipei opened in 1979.
Taiwan’s state-owned railways are generally reliable and efficient, but have had a patchy safety record over the years.
The last major crash was in 2018, when 18 people died and 175 were injured when a train derailed in the island’s northeast.
In 1948, 64 people are estimated to have died when a train burst into flames in northern Taiwan.