• JIJI, AFP-JIJI, KYODO

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The train that derailed in eastern Taiwan on Friday, killing at least 50 people and injuring more than 140 others, was train manufactured by Japan’s Hitachi Ltd., making it the second deadly accident in Taiwan involving a Japanese-manufactured train in less than three years.

In October 2018, a train made by another Japanese firm, Nippon Sharyo Ltd., was involved in a deadly accident.

Friday’s accident occurred 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 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 meters … onto the train line,” Feng Hui-sheng, deputy director of Taiwan Railways Authority, told reporters.

Local media images from the scene showed the back of a yellow flatbed truck on its side next to the train just a few meters from the tunnel entrance.

The eight-carriage train was packed with some 480 people heading down the east coast for the annual Tomb Sweeping Festival, a four-day public holiday.

The Taiwan Railways Agency said 146 passengers were sent to hospital in addition to the 50 confirmed dead.

A French national was among those killed while two Japanese and one Macau resident were injured. A previous statement from the agency gave a death toll of 51.

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 center 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.”

“It’s true that the train was made by Hitachi. But we’re unaware of the cause of the accident, so I can’t make comment,” a Hitachi official said earlier.

It took two years for Taiwan to release the final investigation report on the October 2018 crash, in which 18 people were killed and 291 were injured.

Although that accident was found to have been linked to administrative issues, a damages lawsuit has been filed against Nippon Sharyo.

Hitachi supplied a total of 48 train cars to Taiwan in 2006-2007. In 2015, the firm received an order from Taiwanese authorities for 16 additional cars.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga offered his condolences following the accident.

“I am extremely heartbroken,” Suga wrote on Twitter, which also appeared in Chinese. “I express my heartfelt sympathies to those who have died and offer my sincere condolences for the people who suffered in the accident.”

Separately, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s top government spokesman, told a news conference, that Tokyo was prepared to offer any aid needed.

“If there is a request from the Taiwan side regarding support, we want to consider possible assistance,” Kato said.

Rescuers work at the site of a train that derailed after colliding with a railway maintenance vehicle (top yellow) that slipped down an embankment above the tracks in the mountains of Hualien, in eastern Taiwan, on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
Rescuers work at the site of a train that derailed after colliding with a railway maintenance vehicle (top yellow) that slipped down an embankment above the tracks in the mountains of Hualien, in eastern Taiwan, on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

The accident occurred on Taiwan’s eastern railway line around 9:30 a.m.

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

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

Footage released by the Taiwan Red Cross showed specialists with helmets and headlights had to use the roof of the stricken train to reach people inside the narrow single-track tunnel.

By midafternoon, officials said there were no people left inside the carriages but dozens of rescuers remained on site as evening set in, according to reporters at the crash scene.

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

People further back in the train were able to walk away from the crash comparatively unscathed.

A live Facebook broadcast by UDN outside the tunnel showed a row of undamaged train carriages with rescuers helping passengers escape.

“It felt like there was a sudden violent jolt and I found myself falling to the floor,” an unidentified female survivor told the network, saying she suffered a cut to her head.

“We broke the window to climb to the roof of the train to get out.”

The annual Tomb Sweeping Festival is an especially busy time of the year for Taiwan’s roads and railways.

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 on record.

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

That crash was the island’s worst since 1991, when 30 passengers were killed and 112 injured after two trains collided in Miaoli.

Thirty were also killed in 1981 after a truck collided with a passenger train at a level crossing and sent coaches over a bridge in Hsinchu.

The Apple Daily newspaper said the island’s worst crash was in 1948 when 64 died.

Another crash in 1961 killed 48, while a 1978 crash left 41 dead.

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