According to local media, survivors were seen climbing out of windows and onto roofs to reach safety in the island’s worst railway disaster in decades.
The crash occurred near the Toroko Gorge scenic area at around 9am local time (1am GMT) on a public holiday, and officials in Hualien county said rescue efforts are continuing.
Reports said a truck or some type of service vehicle fell from a cliff and landed on the tracks, where a train emerging from a tunnel smashed into it. With much of the train still trapped in the tunnel, escaping passengers were forced to scale doors, windows and roofs to reach safety.
The vehicle apparently hit after the locomotive had emerged, causing the greatest damage to carriages 1-5, according to the rescue department of Hualien county.
Television footage and photos posted by people at the scene on the website of the official Central News Agency showed people climbing out the open door of a carriage just outside the entrance to the tunnel. The inside of one car was pushed all the way into the adjacent seat.
The accident came on the first day of the four-day Tomb Sweeping Festival, an annual religious festival when people travel to their hometowns for family gatherings and to worship at the graves of their ancestors.
Taiwan’s last major rail crash was in October 2018 when an express train derailed while rounding a tight corner on the north-east coast, killing at least 18 people and injuring nearly 200.
In 1981, a collision in western Taiwan killed 30 people and injured 112 in what was previously its deadliest train accident.
Taiwan is a mountainous island where most of its 24 million people are squeezed onto flatlands along the northern and western coasts. The lightly populated east is popular with tourists, many of whom arrive along the coastal railway lines to avoid treacherous mountain roads.
Taiwan’s extensive rail system has undergone substantial upgrades in recent years, particularly with the addition of a high-speed line connecting the capital Taipei with west coast cities to the south.
This is a developing story.