Welders cut through twisted metal in search of bodies and survivors amid the two trains' crushed hulks, while soldiers carried out the dead. Soldiers rushed from a nearby base to help with rescue efforts.
Thirty-six injured had been found, 12 in serious condition, said Dharam Singh, the top railway official in the area of the accident.
"We do not expect any more casualties at the site. We are now concentrating on the seriously injured at the hospital," said railway spokesman Devender Sandhu.
The accident highlighted blind spots in India's huge train network, which is often criticized for poor safety standards.
A "communications snag" between stationmasters at two stations apparently caused the crash, with an express train and a local train allowed to travel toward each other on the same track, Singh said.
"We will order an inquiry. Only then will we come to know who was at fault," Singh said in a telephone interview.
Most of the dead were from the local train, which apparently could not stop in time because it was negotiating a curve. It slammed into an express train traveling from Jammu, the winter capital of Kashmir, to Ahmadabad in western Gujarat state. The local train was traveling between the cities of Jalandhar and Pathankot.
It was India's second major train accident this year. In June, 14 people were killed when a high-speed train derailed after hitting boulders on the track in western Maharashtra state.
Minor derailments and other accidents are common in India's state-run system, which operates 7,000 passenger trains a day.
The sprawling rail network is 67,000 miles long, the world's second-largest after China's.
Tuesday's crash occurred among wheat fields outside Khanpur village, between the cities of Pathankot and Jalandhar in India's northern Punjab province, about 180 miles northwest of New Delhi.
Passengers' relatives jammed stations along the train routes, pleading for information.
At a station in the western city of Ahmadabad, the express train's destination, dozens of people wept as they waited for word.
"They are not even telling us which compartments got damaged in the accident, and only saying that information from Punjab would come at any moment," said Bipul Shah, a government employee whose parents were on the train.
By Channi Anand