Dozens of people have been killed in a train derailment on the east coast of Taiwan, the island’s worst rail disaster in decades.
The 408 Taroko Express was travelling south on the first day of a long weekend, carrying hundreds of passengers towards Taitung, when it crashed inside a tunnel just outside Hualien City at about 9.30am local time, authorities said.
Dozens of people were trapped for hours as rescuers sought to access the “deformed” carriages stuck inside the tunnel.
At least 50 people, including the train’s 33-year-old driver and a six-year-old girl, were reported by the transport ministry to have died. More than 150 were taken to hospitals with injuries, two of whom later died, and 15 were discharged after examination. Of the dead, 40 people are yet to be identified. The train driver was a recently married young man from Taipei, Taiwan’s United Daily News (UDN) reported.
Authorities revised the death toll down from 51, and said a French national was among those killed, while two people from Japan and one from Macau were among those injured.
One passenger told the official news agency CNA that he heard a loud noise and then fell unconscious. When he woke, it was dark and people were using their phones to light the carriage. “I could not bear to look. Many people were lying down,” he said.
The cause of the crash is under investigation, but police said early indications suggested a maintenance vehicle parked incorrectly on a road above the tracks slipped down an embankment, hitting the back carriages of the train. Most of the fatalities were in the front two carriages, authorities said.
Footage and photos of the incident reveal scenes of devastation, with one carriage torn apart, and others flipped on their side or crushed against the tunnel walls. An upturned yellow truck, believed to be the maintenance vehicle, was leaning wrecked against the side of the hill.
In a video posted on social media, one man who filmed the immediate aftermath, said: “Our train has hit the truck, the truck has fallen down. The train is deformed now, I’m lucky I didn’t lose my arms … Lucky that I was in carriage four, there must be casualties.”
The driver of the maintenance vehicle was not in it when it slid down the slope, a police spokeswoman said. He was taken to Chongde police station for questioning.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said emergency services had been mobilised to rescue and assist passengers and staff, and that she had ordered hospitals to prepare for mass casualties. “We will continue to do everything we can to ensure their safety in the wake of this heartbreaking incident,” she added.
Hundreds of emergency and military personnel, vehicles and aircraft were dispatched to the scene, where at least 70 people were trapped for hours. The final two passengers were freed by 4pm.
Footage from local news broadcasts showed people climbing out of carriages and walking along the roofs to escape from the tunnel. Some passengers were carried away on stretchers, while many walked out of the less damaged carriages along the tracks and out of the tunnel.
One woman told UDN they broke a window to climb on to the roof of the train to escape. “It felt like there was a sudden violent jolt and I found myself falling to the floor,” she said of the crash.
The crash occurred on the morning of the first day of a four-day weekend, marking the traditional Tomb Sweeping holiday when people attend to the graves of loved ones and honour the dead. It typically coincides with increased travel across Taiwan, and the BBC reported the train was thought to be carrying about 490 people.
The 408 is one of the fastest on Taiwan’s regular train network, reaching speeds of up to 130km/h (80mph). It runs along the popular east coast region, including through the dramatic mountains and gorges near Taroko national park, via tunnels and bridges.
Friday’s crash is Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in decades. In 2018, 18 people died and 175 were injured when a train derailed in Yilan, about 60 miles (100km) north of Friday’s crash site. A collision in northern Taiwan in 1981 killed 30 people.