Taiwan express train with almost 500 aboard derails after hitting a truck, killing at least 51 passengers and injuring 146 others, officials say.

Rescue workers recover a body from a derailed train near the Taroko Gorge area in Hualien, Taiwan, on April 2, 2021.
Rescue workers recover a body from a derailed train near the Taroko Gorge area in Hualien, Taiwan, on April 2, 2021. (AP)

At least 51 people were killed and about 146 others injured in eastern Taiwan when a packed train collided with a vehicle on the tracks and then derailed inside a tunnel, in the island's worst railway accident in decades.

Officials said on Friday the devastating collision was caused by a railway maintenance vehicle that slipped down an embankment above the tracks near the eastern coastal city of Hualien.

"(The driver) was suspected of not pulling the parking brake tight enough so the vehicle slid 20 metres... onto the train line," Feng Hui-sheng, deputy director of Taiwan Railways Authority, told reporters.

Taiwan's National Fire Agency confirmed the death toll and said all the injured were sent to hospital.

'It was terrifying'

"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."

Local media pictures from the scene showed the back of a yellow flatbed truck on its side next to the train.

A French national was among those killed while two Japanese and one Macau resident were injured.

One unnamed female survivor told TVBS news channel of trapped passengers – some crying out for help, others unconscious.

"There were many people pressed under the seats and others on top of those seats too," she said.

President Tsai Ing-wen visited an emergency response centre in the capital Taipei, and said investigators would get to the bottom of how such a deadly crash could have occurred.

"We will definitely clarify the cause of the incident that has caused major casualties," she told reporters.

"I hope the deceased can rest in peace and the wounded can recover soon."

Tsai's office said she had ordered hospitals to prepare for a mass casualty event.

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No people left trapped

The crash killed the driver of the train carrying many tourists and people heading home at the start of a long weekend traditional holiday to tend to family graves.

Taiwan media said many people were standing as the train was so crowded, and were tossed about by the crash impact.

Pictures published by local news website UDN showed the front of the train inside the tunnel had been pulverised into a twisted mesh of metal.

Rescuers worked for hours to reach those trapped inside the tunnel and haul them out, using buzzsaws to slice through warped sheets of metal.

Footage released by the Taiwan Red Cross showed specialists with helmets and headlights walking on the roof of the stricken train inside the tunnel to reach survivors.

By mid-afternoon, officials said there were no people left inside the carriages.

At the site, Transport Minister Lin Chia-lung told reporters that it had been carrying about 490 people, higher than an earlier figure of 350 provided by fire authorities.

Due to a long history of deadly earthquakes, Taiwan has experienced rescue teams on permanent standby to deal with disasters and retrieve trapped people.

Worst railway accident in decades

The accident occurred at the start of the busy annual Tomb Sweeping Festival, a long holiday weekend when Taiwan's roads and railways are usually packed.

During the festival, people return to ancestral villages to tidy up the graves of their relatives and make offerings.

Taiwan's eastern railway line is usually a popular tourist draw down its dramatic and less populated eastern coastline.

With the help of multiple tunnels and bridges, it winds its way through towering mountains and dramatic gorges before entering the picturesque Huadong Valley.

Friday's crash looks set to be one of Taiwan's worst railway accidents in recent decades.

The last major train derailment in Taiwan was in 2018 and left 18 people dead at the southern end of the same line.

The driver of the eight-carriage train was later charged with negligent homicide.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies