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At least 17 people are dead and dozens more are injured after a train derailed and overturned on a coastal railway in Taiwan.

Some passengers were crushed to death, Ministry of National Defense spokesman Chen Chung-chi said.

"I mourn and offer condolences to the families of those who died, and wish that those injured can quickly get well", she said in a Facebook post.

Soldiers were removing bodies and attempting to identify them, Chen added, but nightfall was complicating rescue work. Five of the cars were on their sides.

Most of the deaths were in the first vehicle, which flipped over, a government spokesman said.

At 9:35pm United Daily News reported that one injured person was a 43 year-old American woman who was sent to St Mary's Hospital in Luodong. The firefighters were joined by soldiers and Buddhist charity workers who gathered on both sides of the tracks.

Onlookers said some passengers were forced to windows in order to escape the train.

It was unclear what caused the crash, and authorities said they had launched an investigation to find out.

Officials said four carriages overturned on Sunday after all eight cars of a train carrying 366 passengers left the tracks on a bend near a railway station in Yilan county, about 40km from Taipei, the capital.

The fastest of Taiwan's regular trains, the Puyuma Express began operating in 2013 to negotiate the rough terrain of the east coast.

The official Central News Agency said the incident was the island's deadliest rail tragedy since 30 people were killed in a 1981 collision in northern Taiwan. Five people were killed. In 2003, a train traveling toward a mountain tourist destination crashed, killing 17 passengers and injuring another 156, and a toppled tree caused a train crash that killed six and injured at least 50 in 2011. Investigators blamed brake failure.

At a press conference late on Sunday, Taiwan Railways Administration chief Lu Chieh-shen said the cause of the derailment was as yet unknown and would be investigated. The eight-car trains are created to tilt when going around curves and have a maximum speed of 150 kph.