Accidents at rail-highway crossings have grown significantly more deadly in the past two years, a public interest group said Monday.

Federal officials objected to that assessment, attributing it to an unusually high number of accidents in 1989, and said the overall performance was much better than in the 1970s.Robert Creamer, director of Citizen Action's Illinois affiliate, told reporters that an analysis of federal data shows there were 1,492 deaths from rail-highway crossing accidents in 1989 and 1990, the highest two-year total in a decade, and 25 percent higher than the average for the previous eight years.

Those translated to one death in every eight reported accidents, up 50 percent from the rate a decade ago, he said.

Creamer blamed the increase on faster trains and heavier usage of rail-highway crossings and said rail industry and the Federal Railroad Administration have not taken sufficient action to prevent accidents. The administration, for example, has yet to finalize new standards for signal maintenance at highway crossings, as directed by Congress.

"The rail industry, echoed by the weak-willed FRA, tries to lay the blame for rising deaths on lack of public awareness about the dangers of crossing accidents," said Creamer. But, he said, "such a response is totally inadequate."

But Gil Carmichael, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the number of deaths in 1990 was 691, far below the 801 in 1989 and even further below the 1,064 reported in 1978.

"There was an increase in 1989 that worried us and we assumed there was another upward trend, so we made some serious changes," Carmichael said.

He said federal officials have improved police training and inspection programs and have spent about $200 million a year to build more overpasses, so cars don't have to wait for or dodge trains.