Rescue workers at the scene of the crash this morning. Pic: AP.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy is heading to the scene of the crash in north-western Spain that killed 77 people in one of the country’s worst rail accidents in decades.
Maria Pardo Rios, a spokeswoman for the Galicia region’s main court, said 73 people were found dead at the scene of the accident and another four died at hospitals.
At least 140 people were injured in the incident which took place near Santiago de Compostela in Galicia late last night.
The train, operated by Renfe, was carrying 218 passengers and an unspecified number of staff, and was heading from Madrid to Ferrol.
No Irish people are believed to have been caught up in the derailment, but the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin has said it is awaiting details from the Galician authorities.
They are currently preparing a list of all passengers and staff on board the train.
Anybody concerned about a loved one they believe may have been travelling on the train can contact the Department of Foreign Affairs on 01-4082000.
The scene of the crash last night. Pic: AP
The Spanish prime minister was born in Santiago de Compostela, where officials have cancelled ceremonies for an annual religious festival that attracts tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world.
Catholic pilgrims converge on the city to take part in a festival honoring St James, whose remains are said to rest in a shrine there.
The city is the main gathering point for the faithful who make it to the end of the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that has drawn Christians since the Middle Ages.
The accident created a scene that was “Dante-esque,” said Alberto Nunez Feijoo, president of the region of Galicia where Santiago de Compostela is the capital.
Spain’s worst rail accident is thought to be a three-train crash in a tunnel in Leon province in 1944.
Due to heavy censorship at the time, the exact death toll for that disaster has never been established.
Although the official figure was given as 78 dead, as many as 250 are thought to have been killed.
The Madrid train bombings of March 2004 produced a death toll of 191- although this was a terrorist attack rather than an accident. Ten explosions took place on board four commuter trains, with the attacks being directed by an al Qaida-inspired terrorist cell.
The derailment is Spain's deadliest train accident since 1972, when a train collided with a bus in the south-west of the country, killing 86 people and injuring 112.
Rescue workers spent the night searching through toppled and smashed carriages alongside the tracks at the crash site, and officials said it is possible that more bodies will be found at the scene.
At least one carriage caught fire after the crash, and smoke could be seen as residents of the urban neighbourhood alongside the tracks tried to help victims.
Rescue workers lined up bodies covered in blankets alongside the tracks and some passengers were pulled out of broken windows.
Television images showed one man on top of a carriage lying on its side, using a pickaxe to try to smash through a window. Residents said other rescuers used rocks to break the glass.
State-owned train operator Renfe said in a statement an unspecified number of staff were also on board the train during the 8.41pm crash on a section of track about two and a half miles from Santiago de Compostela, which first came online two years ago.
Spanish media reported the train had two conductors aboard and that both survived.
Renfe and track operator Adif are co-operating with a judge who has been appointed to investigate the accident, Renfe said.
Spanish government officials declined to comment on possible causes, but said it appeared to be an accident and that there are no suspicions of terrorism.