The Taroko Express train derailed and crashed in a tunnel on the first day of a long holiday weekend.
TAIPEI, Taiwan — A passenger train derailed in eastern Taiwan on Friday, killing at least 51 people and injuring nearly 160 others, the authorities said, in the island’s deadliest railway accident in decades.
The eight-car Taroko Express train had been traveling from the Taipei area to the eastern coastal city of Taitung when it went off the rails around 9:30 a.m. in a tunnel just north of the city of Hualien. Several carriages hit the walls of the tunnel.
Rescue workers took several hours to free dozens of passengers who had been trapped in the wreck and said that they believed they had evacuated all survivors. The search continued into Friday evening, but workers were struggling to get to several train cars that were deep inside the tunnel. Local news footage showed one worker using an electric circular saw to cut open one of the twisted carriages.
Video footage posted online showed rescuers carrying injured passengers out on stretchers as other survivors emerged from the tunnel walking on the roof of the train, some rolling suitcases. Some passengers described smashing the windows of their carriage with their luggage to try to get out.
The Taroko Express train is one of the fastest to traverse Taiwan’s east coast and typically travels at around 80 miles per hour. It had been carrying around 350 passengers at the time of the crash, the official Central News Agency said.
Friday was the annual Tomb Sweeping Day holiday, a time when Taiwan sees a surge in travel. The crash occurred near Qingshui Cliff, a sightseeing destination popular among tourists who flock to see towering mountains and crystal-blue waters.
A passenger surnamed Wu told the Central News Agency that he remembered hearing a loud crashing sound before he passed out. When he regained consciousness, the train was shrouded in darkness and he and several passengers used the light from their cellphones to see. They tried to help the other injured survivors, and it took them an hour to find their way out of the train, he said.
“I’m already safe, but I didn’t dare to look at the crash scene,” he said. “Many bodies were lying there.”
The death toll makes the train crash one of the worst disasters that Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has faced since she took office in 2016. Within hours of the crash, Ms. Tsai said that the government had fully mobilized its emergency rescue services. Later, she vowed to conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the collision.
“We pray for the victims to rest in peace and for the injured to recover as soon as possible,” she said at a news conference late Friday afternoon.
In the last major train accident, in 2018, 18 people were killed and 170 others injured after a train derailed in northeast Taiwan’s Yilan County on a coastal route popular among tourists. Taiwanese investigators later found that the train had been going too fast and that the driver had manually disabled an automatic train protection system designed to prevent it from exceeding safe speeds.
But train accidents are still fairly rare in Taiwan, with the last crash of a similar scale taking place in 1981, when a train collision in the island’s northwest killed 31 people.
The authorities said they were investigating the cause of Friday’s accident, but local news outlets reported that the train appeared to have collided with a construction vehicle, causing the derailment. Reports also said that the train driver had been killed, but that could not immediately be confirmed.
A railway official said they believe the driver of the construction vehicle parked on a slope near the entrance of the tunnel and may have forgotten to engage the emergency brake, causing the truck to roll down and hit the train just as it was passing, according to the Central News Agency. The driver is not believed to have been in the truck at the time.
A cellphone video filmed by a passenger and posted on social media showed what appeared to be a yellow trailer vehicle lying on its side next to the derailed train at the entrance to the tunnel.
“Our train crashed into this truck,” said the passenger in the video. He panned the camera to show a grassy slope beside the tunnel. “The truck rolled down, and now the whole train is twisted.” Local media outlets published a photo showing a single truck door lying on the grass.
The police had taken in the operator of the construction vehicle for possible questioning, according to a police official in Hualien County who was reached by phone.
Lin Chia-lung, Taiwan’s transportation minister, told reporters at the crash site on Friday that while he had done his best to strengthen accountability and reform the railway system following the 2018 train disaster, “clearly the speed and results of the reforms were not enough.”
“I am responsible, and I should take responsibility,” Mr. Lin said.
Photos circulating online indicated the damage was likely severe. One image posted by United Daily News, a Taiwan news outlet, showed what appeared to be the train’s mangled control car on its side in the dark tunnel. The train’s conductor told a local television station that he had been on one end of the train when he felt what seemed like the emergency brakes being applied and a sudden jolt.
In interviews with local news outlets, survivors described the train as being crowded, with many passengers standing during the journey. Some said in video interviews that the carriages they were in had filled with smoke, and that they could see passengers rendered unconscious and trapped.
“Many people were stuck under the seats and piles of bodies,” a woman surnamed Wu told Eastern Television Today, a Taiwanese news station, in an interview from the hospital where she had been treated for light injuries. “At the beginning I could hear them crying for help, but then maybe they fell asleep or something. Also I saw many children, so pitiful, so pitiful.”
Most train services along Taiwan’s eastern routes have been suspended until Sunday morning, causing travel delays for many at the start of a long holiday weekend. Tomb Sweeping Day, an ancient Chinese festival also known as Qingming, is a time in which the living pay respect to their ancestors by tidying their graves and burning paper offerings.
A woman who was traveling back home with her husband to sweep the family tombs in Taitung told local reporters at the site of the accident that she had been asleep in the seventh carriage when the train crashed, throwing her to the floor. The woman’s shirt was bloodied, and a plaid scarf had been tied around her head to stem the bleeding.
“We’ve always tried to take the train whenever possible,” she said, as rescue workers in yellow hard hats worked behind her. “We never thought something like this would happen.”
Joy Dong reported from Hong Kong.