More than 70 people were injured, Transport Police Inspector Ian Griffiths said, as rescue workers continued to struggle to free passengers trapped in the mangled wreckage at Great Heck, a village about 200 miles north of London.
Twisted coaches lay in a muddy field below the railway embankment. The freight train was partially derailed, with its front end completely off the track and lying on its side. It had slid into the back garden of a house, crushing a trailer. By midafternoon, crews were using cranes to help remove bodies from the wreckage.
Janine Edwards, 22, who was riding in the middle of the passenger train, said she heard "screaming and shouting and the lights went out.
"I held onto the table in front of me and then there was a huge impact. My carriage was on its side. I was lucky, I was still in my seat, clinging to the table. But one lady, who was traveling with her daughter, had been flung into the air and was lying in the next corridor. Her leg was trapped.
"The man opposite me was streaming with blood. The window next to him was smashed and the frame had come out and hit him. His wife sitting next to him was covered in his blood," Edwards said
The accident the fourth fatal crash in 3 ½ years was certain to raise new questions about the safety of the beleaguered British rail system, even though there was no early indication that engineer error or equipment failure had played a role.
Police were investigating why the Land Rover and its trailer veered off a highway, down an embankment and on to a rail line. The driver was able to get out of the vehicle and phone police, but too late to stop the passenger train approaching at about 120 mph.
The train derailed after hitting the Land Rover, but remained upright and was still moving forward when it slammed into an oncoming coal train.
"It's like a scene from a bomb explosion. The carnage is appalling," said Nigel Metcalfe, spokesman for North Yorkshire Ambulance Service.
He said rescuers reported hearing mobile phones ringing inside the cars.
At least 56 people were taken to hospitals, said Bob Schofield, spokesman for the National Health Service. "One coach was badly crushed. We fear there will be serious casualties inside that coach," Schofield said.
Mike Playforth, an accident and emergency consultant at Pontefract General Infirmary, said 31 people had been admitted to that hospital, and three had critical injuries.
"They're in shock," Playforth said of the injured. "They are not speaking about it, they are all very shocked at what's happened."
About 100 people were aboard the train, according to Great North Eastern Railways, the train operator. A precise count wasn't immediately possible, because most rail passengers travel without reservations.
"We have carried out four sweeps of the carriages and believe there is nobody alive left on board," Divisional Officer Brian Bell of North Yorkshire Fire Service told reporters more than five hours after the crash.
"There was an earlier report of a voice being heard in a buffet car. We have used listening devices and thermal imaging equipment in that area, but there has been no sign of life," Bell said.
Police said the driver of the Land Rover had called just before the crash. "While the operator was speaking to him we heard him shout: `The train's coming,' and then there was a bang," a police spokesman said.
Authorities were interviewing the Land Rover driver.
"We believe there were crash barriers in the area and our examiners will look at all aspects of this incident," said Detective Superintendent Nick Bracken of British Transport Police.
Residents described hearing the impact.
"We were woken up by a horrible, weird crunching minutes before 6.15 a.m.," said David Chandler, who lives about 200 yards from the railway.
The track is part of the east coast mainline from London to Edinburgh in Scotland. Four people were killed on that line just outside London on Oct. 17 when a rail broke and a high-speed passenger train derailed.
That accident led to speed restrictions and disruption throughout Britain's rail network during an emergency program of replacing cracked rails.