State-owned train operator Renfe said in a statement an unspecified number of staff were also on board the train during the 8.41 p.m. (1841 GMT) crash on a section of tracks about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) from Santiago de Compostela that came online two years ago. Spanish media said the train had two conductors aboard and that both survived.
Renfe and Adif, the state-owned company which manages tracks, signals and other railway infrastructure, were cooperating with a judge who has been appointed to investigate the accident, Renfe said.
It was the third major rail disaster this month. On July 12, six people were killed and nearly 200 were injured when four cars of a passenger train derailed south of Paris.
On July 6, 72 cars carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Ontario, setting off explosions and fires which killed 47 people.
Catholic pilgrims converge on the Santiago de Compostela annually to celebrate a festival honoring St. James, the disciple of Jesus whose remains are said to rest in a shrine. 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,” Feijoo said. He declared seven days of mourning to honor the victims.
Several injured passengers said they felt a strong vibration just before the cars jumped the tracks, said Xabier Martinez, a photographer who talked with them after arriving at the scene as rescue workers were removing dozens of bodies.
Passenger Ricardo Montero told the Cadena Ser radio station that “when the train reached that bend it began to flip over, many times, with some carriages ending up on top of others, leaving many people trapped below. We had to get under the carriages to get out.”
Another passenger, Sergio Prego, told Cadena Ser the train “traveled very fast” just before it derailed and the cars flipped upside down, on their sides and into the air.
“I’ve been very lucky because I’m one of the few able to walk out,” he said.
The Alvia 730 series train started from Madrid and was scheduled to end its journey at El Ferrol, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Santiago de Compostela. Alvias are high-speed but do not go as fast as Spain’s fastest bullet trains called AVEs.
The maximum Alvia speed is 250 kph (155 mph) on tracks made especially for the AVEs, and they travel at a maximum speed of 220 kph (137 mph) on normal gauge rails.
Other major train crashes in Spain over the decades include a 1944 accident on a train traveling from Madrid to the Galicia region that killed 78 people. A subway crash in the southern city of Valencia killed 43 people in 2006 and was blamed on excessive speed. The Madrid train bombings carried out in 2004 killed 191 people.