About 20 people remain unaccounted for, with police urging anyone who evacuated before emergency services arrived, or who had a booking but did not travel, to contact authorities to list themselves as safe.
Several passengers said the train was gaining speed at the time of the accident after being stopped due to a signalling issue.
Passengers described being thrown violently around inside the train as the diesel locomotive and at least four carriages careered off the tracks.
Passenger Rob Jennings said travellers were tossed around the carriage during the approximately minute-long period from when the train began to derail to when it came to a halt.
“It just veered off, and all the carriages smashed into one another,” he said. “People were tossing around … there was some screaming – everyone was just grasping on, some in the brace position, preparing for the possibility of something worse.”
Passengers said the driver had told them over the public address system that he would try to make up time for earlier delays.
Leon, who did not want his surname used, also said the the train was stopped minutes before the crash, with staff saying a signalling issue was causing delays.
After the accident Leon, who has experience in rail transport, said he walked back to where he thought the train had derailed.
He said the tracks, which police said were badly damaged following the crash, were set to divert the train onto an adjacent parallel side track. Leon said signals should have alerted the driver to slow down to be able to move into the side track, but he did not notice the train slowing prior to the derailment.
“If the driver knew that, and the signalling told him that, there’s no way he would have been travelling at the speed he was travelling at,” Leon said.
“You have to slow down at that point … And this train didn’t.”
Passengers said they felt a sharp bump before the train derailed.
Acting Inspector Peter Fusinato, of Victoria Police, said it was too early to say whether signalling faults or any other factor played a role in the accident.
He said the investigation will look into the train’s speed and braking data, as well as signalling information.
“For the first responders who turned up, it would have been looking like a horrific scene,” Inspector Fusinato said.
“[With] 153 passengers, the outcome was probably far better than what you would have anticipated … we’re very fortunate.”
Responding to reports a first responder shattered his hand trying to free the driver from the driver’s cabin, Inspector Fusinato said “heroic” acts of bravery would emerge from the incident.
Peter Crouch, 64, was travelling on the train to Melbourne after finishing his trucking shift in Albury.
When the train derailed, Mr Crouch was flung from his seat and across the carriage.
“I nearly ended up going out through the window on the other side,” he said.
“We’re going at speed, and all of a sudden the whole bloody thing just goes sideways, and people go everywhere, me included. It was horrendous.”
One man on scene at the time of the derailment said train staff and more able-bodied passengers were helping those with minor injuries off the damaged carriages while others ran to try and free the driver.
“The train workers and conductors were pretty frantic trying to get into the locomotive. Everyone was trying to smash the window but it’s designed not to break,” he said.
“The walking wounded have been able to walk up to the BP, which is about 200 metres away, and they’re being triaged there in the carpark. I reckon I saw about 100 people there.”
At 11pm, almost all passengers had either been transferred to hospital, picked up by relatives or friends, or taken back to Melbourne on three buses.
Police and emergency services had blocked access to the crash site.
All Seymour and Shepparton V/Line services were suspended until further notice and the nearby Catholic school will be closed on Friday. Police said it may take days to clear the tracks.
Photographs of the derailment show several carriages removed from the tracks, with the front carriage rolled over onto its side.
It is unclear how the train derailed, but V/Line had warned earlier on Thursday that the service to Albury was delayed because of a rail fault.
The Border Mail reported on Thursday that north-east train travellers were being asked to allow an extra 60 minutes for trips after a signal hut at Wallan was destroyed by fire earlier this month.
The Border Mail reported that passengers have experienced lengthy delays, including up to 100 minutes in some instances with V/Line and Australian Rail Track Corporation having differing opinions on when repair works will be completed.
Federal Transport Minister Michael McCormack and his Victorian and NSW counterparts Melissa Horne and Paul Toole released a joint statement saying they were “working closely to support all those involved in the incident”.
“Our thoughts are with all those involved and their loved ones,” the statement said.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau and the National Rail Safety Regulator will send investigators to the site. WorkSafe will join the investigation.
The NSW rail authority is responsible for the management of the train involved, while the Australian Rail Track Corporation manages the rail line.
An ARTC spokesperson said services were suspended until further notice to allow emergency services to respond to the train derailment.
“We are working hard to support emergency services, NSW TrainLink and investigators to respond to this tragic accident,” the spokesperson said.
A freight train also came off the tracks in Wallan in 2017 and last month a passenger and freight train crashed at Barnawatha near Albury, but no one was hurt.
In December, Infrastructure Australia knocked back a proposal to have an upgrade of the line from Melbourne to Albury placed on the nation’s priority infrastructure list.
It found the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s business case for the $198 million project “materially overestimated” the community benefits from the works.
The business case noted that Victoria’s regional trains had a self-imposed speed limit of 15km/h on the entire line from the outer Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows through to Seymour, which includes Wallan, due to “poor track quality” such as mud holes and tight rail alignments.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.